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phased reopening Students with special needs to return to school next Thursday

Education Minister Norma Foley, Junior Minister for Special Education Josepha Madigan and the education partners, including teacher unions, are working towards a return for these pupils on January 21.

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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

Pupils with special needs may be back in school next Thursday in the first phase of a staggered post-Christmas return.

Education Minister Norma Foley, Junior Minister for Special Education Josepha Madigan and the education partners, including teacher unions, are working towards a return for these pupils on January 21.

The date is not set in stone but, after a meeting between the ministers and the education partners today, it was described as “shared ambition” and engagement will continue.

It covers at least 18,000 pupils in special schools and special classes – but schools may also bring back for children with special needs who attend mainstream schools but do not participate in special classes and other vulnerable children.

After today’s meeting with the education partners, Ms Foley said all parties shared her objective “to work together so that children with special educational needs, who find it very hard to engage with remote or online learning receive some face to face education in schools before a fuller reopening is possible.

The minister said they were “working together towards a phased return for children in special schools and a return to school for those in special classes in primary schools and children with significant additional needs in mainstream classes beginning on 21 January".

She said they were working in parallel with post-primary stakeholders to address their concerns and recognising that post-primary schools present different logistical challenges if a partial return is to be possible.

The minister also “very much” hoped that the ongoing negotiations would set out a pathway for the return of all children at all levels of schooling at the start of February.

But she added that this would be “subject of course to Government and public health consideration of what constitutes the safe movement of people at that point.

“I am aware that staff, parents and students across all levels of education are looking for very clear communication from our colleagues in the health sector to reaffirm that infection prevention and control measures in our schools are effective at this time.”

She said her officials were continuing to engage closely with senior Public Health specialists in this respect and direct communications in the coming days through webinars, videos for parents and written FAQs would supplement the significant levels of information and guidance available already.

Ms Madigan said she was pleased that there was “now a commitment to work towards a return to school for students in special schools and primary school special classes as well as students with special educational needs in mainstream primary classes from 21 January.”

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said it would continue its participation in engagement on the proposals and the supports required to make them work with a renewed focus on the fuller reopening of schools.

The union also said that in recognition that the proposal requires special education teachers to return to their schools ahead of their mainstream colleagues, and of the very close care and attention these teachers give to their pupils , it was “ it is only right that they should be moved higher up the vaccine priority list.”

The INTO said it now expected the government to shortly re-state the commitment made this week by Tánaiste “that those who work in special education will be prioritised in this manner, thereby ensuring swifter access to the vaccine.”

There is no date set yet for the return of 60,000 Leaving cert candidates ,who are also regarded as a priority group.

The general return to school, originally scheduled for January 6, has been delayed until February 1 – at the earliest – because of Covid infection rates.

But with the spread of the disease remaining at high levels in the community – and the more transmissible and increasingly dominant UK variant is now - there is now uncertainty even about that date.

The prioritisation of pupils with special needs comes after a week of intense negotiations seeking agreement on a re-opening schedule.

Ms Foley was due to address the Dáil around lunchtime on the outline of the deal .

Last week, Ms Foley announced plans for a partial re-opening of schools from January 11, to cater for about 18,000 pupils with special needs and 60,000 Leaving Cert candidates.

But she was forced into a u-turn after teacher unions expressed health and safety concerns about going back to the classroom and said they not been consulted.

There have been intense negotiations since, involving Ms Foley, Ms Madigan, their officials and the education partners, including unions.


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