I thank the House for the opportunity to address the issue of reopening in-school teaching and learning for students with special educational needs and to update Members on the efforts that have been made in this regard since I spoke here last week. When I was in the House last Thursday, I outlined the following points, which are worth repeating:
School, and education more broadly, is a hugely powerful and positive force in our young people's lives and it is vital that this is preserved for our students in these most challenging times and circumstances. International organisations, including the World Health Organization, WHO, and the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, have outlined the negative impact of school closure on children's health and well-being, as has the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. For many children, school is not only a place of learning but also provides opportunities for social and personal development, healthy eating and physical activity. As the research of New Zealand education expert, Mr. John Hattie, has shown, school can be a hub of response and recovery, a place to support emotional recovery and promote social togetherness and this is as important as any academic gains.
It is for all of these reasons that Government and the Department of Education have invested heavily in schools to support them throughout this pandemic.
The Government and I are conscious of the particular strain that school closures place on children with special educational needs and their families. Research led by Dr. Carol Barron from DCU's school of nursing, psychotherapy and community health found that during the last period of school closures, children with special needs were suffering from a lack of routine, with the disruptions to their daily routines having a significant negative impact on them. Many children experienced regression during this period of social isolation and this negatively impacted their mental health. In many families, that earlier period of closure was a traumatic and deeply stressful time for children, their parents and their siblings. A survey by Inclusion Ireland in May 2020 found that:
Educating at home is not working well for most respondents to Inclusion Ireland's survey. There are huge barriers to educating at home for parents, who are not teachers in most cases.
Parents specifically found it challenging to provide education to children with special educational needs while also trying to work from home, work on the front line and isolate at home, or care for other children or elderly adults.
It is for all of these reasons and more that the Department has prioritised the reopening of schools and classes for children with special educational needs. As Deputies will all be aware, the Department and I have engaged intensively with all stakeholders to realise this shared ambition. As I have stated many times before in this House and in other fora, collaboration is at the heart of all that we do in the education system, and this has never been more evident than at the present moment. Over the past year, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been unprecedented levels of engagement between the Department of Education and stakeholders. It was in this spirit of co-operation and engagement that the Department approached the vital goal of reopening schools for children with special educational needs. It is worth noting that between 4 January and this Tuesday, there have been engagements between unions and myself or senior officials on a near-daily basis. All of those meetings were focused on the safe reopening of schools. In more recent days, they were particularly focused on the more specific question of reopening special schools on a phased basis. As I said, there has been near-daily contact with stakeholders in this time period.
Before I spoke in the House last Thursday afternoon, I attended a meeting with the primary education stakeholders, including representatives of parents, teachers, special needs assistants, school management bodies and principals. Following on from that meeting, and the many engagements which had preceded it, all stakeholders agreed that we would work together towards the shared objective of a staged reopening of special and primary schools for children with special educational needs. Consequently, the Department wrote to special schools and primary schools on 14 January, addressing concerns in regard to a phased reopening of primary and special schools for children with significant additional needs being planned for this week. The issues addressed included advice on school safety measures, risk management, school transport and childcare.
On 15 January, the Department wrote to special schools and primary schools setting out details of the framework under which it is intended that in-school teaching and learning would take place in special schools, special classes in mainstream primary schools and for pupils with special educational needs who attend mainstream classes in primary school. This guidance was agreed with the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, and Fórsa. The measures set out provide for: the return of pupils in special schools to school, attending on alternate days; pupils in special classes in mainstream primary schools to attend every day; and pupils with significant additional needs in mainstream classes in primary schools to have access to in-school teaching and learning in special education teaching groups. As we are all regrettably aware, it has not been possible so far to secure agreement for a partial reopening of schools for children with special needs. Both the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I will continue to engage with stakeholders to achieve an early return to in-school teaching and learning for this priority group of children.
At a webinar for school stakeholders attended by more than 16,000 teachers, SNAs and school staff, public health doctors, while acknowledging that, at present, the mobility of 1.1 million people in the education sector would not be advisable, reiterated that schools are safe places for both students and adults because of the mitigation measures now in place, which include guidance on social distancing, mask wearing, hand hygiene, cleaning and school transport. This event provided an opportunity for teachers and SNAs to ask questions about the return to in-person learning for children with special educational needs and the public health considerations in that regard. The webinar restated the message from our public health experts that schools are safe for staff and pupils and built on the confidence in our schools concerning the virus and the management of the risks associated with it.
Among the topics covered at the webinar were the safety of a school return at present, taking into account the latest information regarding the new variant and the present rate of community infection. In this context, specific reference was made to the experience of childcare facilities to date in 2021. The available data from January 2021 tell us that childcare facilities had a close-contact positivity rate of 3.2%, compared with a rate in the community in the high teens. In the year to date, the close-contact positivity rate for all schools has been below that of childcare facilities. Also covered was the enhanced public health schools teams, which are being further enhanced by the Department of Education. Close contacts, testing and tracing were also discussed, in respect of which measures will continue for schools.
I wish at this point to express my appreciation to our public health experts, who have given so freely of their time and expertise. I was somewhat taken aback by some commentary around their role in recent days, which sought to cast aspersions on their advice. I want to acknowledge their immense professionalism, integrity and sense of public service, which have been of huge value to the education sector and to our society and country as a whole.
Unions have raised further concerns regarding high-risk staff and childcare arrangements. In response, the Department set out to the unions how it would address those concerns. Proposed measures included putting in place temporary flexible accommodations for high-risk staff to work remotely or carry out duties where they are not in close contact or providing personal care.
These temporary arrangements were possible only because of the very significant reduction in the number of children on site under the proposed phased reopening. Pregnant teachers and SNAs were given the concession to work from home as part of these temporary arrangements while advice for pregnant education sector staff was to be developed by occupational and public health doctors. Furthermore, education staff, particularly those on lower incomes, would be eligible for childcare subsidies from the national childcare scheme.
I want to assure the House that every effort is being made to work with school management and unions in a collaborative way so children can return to school safely as soon as possible. As I have said, intensive engagement has taken place with all stakeholders, including unions representing teachers and SNAs, namely INTO and Fórsa. This included intensive engagement with public health officials.
It should be noted that the plan to accommodate children with additional needs had considerable support among Opposition members and, indeed, was called for within and outside this House. The Government paused plans for reopening on 6 January as the education partners were expressing concerns regarding the proposed reopening on that date. The Minister of State responsible for special education and inclusion and I have been listening to those concerns. We engage intensively with stakeholders, public health officials and disability advocacy groups to address these concerns. The recent intensive engagement has not just been between the Department of Education and union representatives. The Department, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I have been engaging with disability representative bodies and parental representative bodies in regard to how children with special educational needs can best be supported during the current school closure period. It is important to provide in-person learning to this vulnerable cohort of children and I regret that to this point it has not proved possible. The needs of this group of students are such that no one should be in any doubt about the importance of this goal and its urgency. We all understand how vulnerable these children are and how much they need to be in school.
The concerns and fears of teachers and SNAs have been well-articulated. I understand and appreciate that this is a time of heightened anxiety for all in society, including those in the education sector. I say that sincerely. This is a challenging and difficult time and we are listening carefully.
Public health advice for the education sector has at all times underpinned our approach to keeping schools safe and operational. Public health experts continue to advise that with the appropriate measures in place, we can support the reopening of special schools, special classes and in-person learning for certain children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.
Ireland is now an outlier in the European Union in not having in-person provision for students with special educational needs at this time. We have addressed the concerns raised in relation to safety, including making public health officials available to education partner representatives and subsequently facilitating three of the most senior public health officials in the country to communicate directly with teachers and SNAs. The Department has consistently accepted and acted on the knowledge, advice and expertise of public health experts. This is the first time that unions have refused to accept that advice.
We have provided guidance on how special schools can operate at 50% capacity to offer the students a return to learning. We have provided guidance and flexibility in regard to staff members who are at high risk of Covid-19 to ensure their safety. We have put in place flexible arrangements for schools to manage this situation, return to in-person learning and to organise and manage their staffing in this context.
Our clear focus, today, tomorrow and always, is on getting children and young people with special educational needs back into their classrooms. Work to achieve that is continuing assiduously. I know that Deputies across the House share this objective. I welcome their positive co-operation and contributions in the House today.