The deep failure to re-open Special Schools in Ireland

Ireland finds itself as the outlier in Europe for all the wrong reasons. We are the only country to have not reopened special education settings in the New Year. One of the harshest lessons the Department of Education learned during the first wave of Covid-19 in Ireland was the failure to reopen Special Education settings.

It was damning and heart-breaking reading and hearing the stories of devastation the first wave of the pandemic caused for the parents of kids with special needs who were left to fend in the most part by themselves. Children lost basic life skills and missed out on their essential need of routine.

Yet nearly a year later, the Department of Education find themselves in a similar position, special education settings remain closed. We are talking about just 16,000 children which equates to roughly 2% of the entire school population who require special school services. For these children, it is an essential life-support and service.

The failure we have laid witness to in the past few weeks lies firmly at the feet of the Department of Health and Teacher Unions. Norma Foley, the Minister for Education, while her intentions may be correct, her actions can only be described as utterly misguided. Claiming an agreement had been reached with the Unions for the return of special education settings on the 21st of January, a claim which turned out to be entirely false, was an embarrassing attempt at a political bluff.

While Minister Foley was in a bullish mood in the Dail on Thursday and made no apologises for picking the side of those with special needs when being on the end of sharp criticism from Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, it would be disingenuous to suggest she has handled the whole situation adeptly. However, it would also be wrong to blame the entire situation on Minister Foley. Teacher Unions are no Saints in this story.

Two unions we have heard from constantly over the past few weeks have been Forsa and INTO. Forsa are currently facilitating essential day services for 14,000 adults in need. INTO, who represent teachers across the whole island, are currently facilitating special education settings in Northern Ireland but not in the Republic of Ireland. You actually have a ridiculous situation where you have one Union supporting special education settings in Armagh but not in Louth.

Many of their arguments for not returning to special education settings revolve around public health advice which is of course, completely understandable. The reality is though, there is no such thing as a Covid risk-free environment when people are mixing. Yet, you can manage these risks by planning. It is hard to fathom much more can be done to protect teachers and SNA’s. Which begs the question what on earth are government officials and unions fighting over in terms of plans and conditions?

While some teachers and the Unions pointed to contradicting public health advice after a webinar with Deputy Chief Medical Officer Ronan Glynn, he made public health’s position crystal clear on Friday. When asked about public health advice on schooling for pupils with special needs he replied “Would 3, 4, 5% of that full cohort (of students) going back have a very significant impact on the high levels of community transmission at present? No.”

The constitution of Ireland also plays a role. Every child has a right to access education, remote learning covers this in some contexts but not all. As highlighted by Gareth Noble, Ireland’s top Child Rights Solicitor “If you have a child that has a diagnosis or condition that is rooted in communication deficits, many are not suitable for remote learning. As a result, the whole concept of remote learning does not meet their constitutional right to access to education.”

Special education settings are essential services. Meaning teachers are deemed essential workers just like healthcare staff, supermarket workers etc. If every occupation took up a similar stance to that of some of the teacher unions in the past few weeks, we would have no nurses in our hospitals, no police presence on our streets, no local grocery shops would be open, there would be no food on our tables.

Children with special needs have been utterly failed this past month by those who they heavily rely on for support. With the news being reported that over 200 parents of these kids are planning to sue the Department of Education for their failure to reopen special schools, Ireland now finds itself on the brink of an avoidable civil war between Government, teachers, parents and Unions. It is time an end is brought to the unnecessary suffering of these kids.