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Exceptions Norma Foley pushes to keep special schools open while all others expected to stay shut

The move is aimed at easing the burden on parents of children with special needs while also ensuring the students have a much needed educational outlet during the third national lockdown.

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Education Minister Norma Foley Photo: Frank McGrath

Education Minister Norma Foley Photo: Frank McGrath

Education Minister Norma Foley Photo: Frank McGrath

Education Minister Norma Foley will seek to keep all special schools open while the rest of the secondary and primary education sector is expected to be closed.

Ahead of a Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 meeting, Ms Foley will push to ensure special schools and special classes within mainstream schools remain open while the rest of the sector is closed.

The move is aimed at easing the burden on parents of children with special needs while also ensuring the students have a much needed educational outlet during the third national lockdown.

However, it is expected all other schools will be asked to close for the rest of the month.

Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Tony Holohan is due to brief the Cabinet Committee later this afternoon. The Government leaders and their ministers will then make a decision on how long schools will remain closed. A final decision will be taken by Cabinet tomorrow.

However, a senior government source today said it is increasingly like that they will remain closed until the end of the month.

Ms Foley will insist at the meeting that special schools should remain open and plans are being put in place by her department to facilitate this.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has confirmed that government will discuss proposals to keep schools closed until the end of January.

Speaking on the News at One on RTÉ Radio 1, he said both he and CMO Dr Holohan are of the opinion that there is an "issue" with "a million people on the go" when the transmission of the virus in the community is so high.

He repeated that schools are safe.

"We have to err on the side of caution," he said.

"It's about the mobilisation of a million people in the context of a very high level of disease in the community," he said.

Mr Martin said that the school closures will be again reviewed on January 30th.

Earlier, the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, urged members of the cabinet sub-committee and NPHET to consider a wide range of options around the education of children ahead of their meeting.

“The simple, blanket closure of all schools, as happened in March last year, is not a viable option because of the massive impact it will have on our children and their families,” he said.

“Without a doubt children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged backgrounds will once more be disproportionately affected by Covid -19 school closures, therefore any long-term measures to reduce transmission in society must consider the substantial negative impact on these groups.”

The OCO said they’ve written to the Government several times about the development of more nuanced options around the closing and opening of schools during the pandemic.

“Education is about more than learning, it is about developing personalities, talents, and abilities of children to reach their greatest potential while also facilitating mental health, play and recreation,” Dr Muldoon said.

“I would urge all of these decision makers to look to how they might generate a nuanced response and facilitate our vulnerable children to attend school as well as how to properly support those who engage in home learning.”

Director of Investigations at the OCO Nuala Ward explained why schools remain vital for many disabled children and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“For those with special needs the safety, routine and discipline of school is about more than education, it offers a pathway for them to grow and learn socially which is vital if they were to reach their full potential,” she said.

“It is vital that the Government are reminded of the massive negative impact the last lockdown had on this cohort of children and their families. Regression on many fronts is guaranteed if their education is shut down again.”

“For children who live in poverty and are at a socio-economic disadvantage such as Traveller and Roma children as well as for those in Direct Provision and many homeless children in family hubs and emergency accommodation, long term school closures means the inequalities they already face will be increased immeasurably.”

She went on to say that for many of them, the first lockdown has already had an effect on their educational, social and behavioural development.

“What is now required is a concerted effort to ensure that the country’s most vulnerable children can attend their schools in a manner that is safe for them, their teachers and carers.”

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