Special Education Provision: Statements

I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this very important debate. I know many parents throughout the country are anxious to hear the update on the provision of special education for their children, an issue that has many families under stress at the moment. I hope the Minister of State will outline how we can relieve the stress on those families.

I welcome the opportunity to address Senators in the House. We are all aware of the challenges and difficulties faced by all sectors of society over recent months as we tackle the threat of Covid-19. Restrictions, although necessary, have not been easy and the burden has been particularly heavy on those who are most vulnerable. As Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, I am particularly focused on those young people with additional needs as well as those who support them.

At the start, it is important to acknowledge the challenges faced by these young people and their families at this time, as well as all the staff who support them. These students have been at the heart of our commitment to ensure in-person special education could continue in some form during the current restrictions for those who need it. This has been a clear priority for the Government.

We all know that distance learning does not work for all. This has also been proven by international evidence. Furthermore, we know that previous school closures have impacted many young people with special educational needs, causing regression and loss of key skills. Recent weeks have seen consistent engagement with our education partners, including teachers and special needs assistant, SNA, unions. Furthermore, intensive engagement continued following the initial pause which was requested by stakeholders. This built upon the significant collaboration which had taken place with stakeholders throughout this pandemic, including weekly meetings involving various educational stakeholders. Through discussions with primary and special educational stakeholders, it had been hoped that a shared objective to support children with special educational needs returning to in-school learning could have been reached.

The Department listened closely to the issues raised by trade unions and school management bodies, which included requests for clear messaging around public health to be given directly to members by public health specialists, temporary arrangements during the current phase of reopening for high-risk staff and indeed those experiencing childcare difficulties. In response, the Department set out a proposal for how it would address these concerns. This included greater work flexibility and distance working for high-risk and pregnant teachers and special needs assistants. These temporary arrangements were only possible due to the significant reduction of children on-site under the proposed phased reopening.

A health education webinar that had significant attendance by front-line education staff was hosted by my Department at the request of unions and partners and was attended by the deputy chief medical officer, Dr. Ronan Glynn, and senior public health consultants, Dr. Abigail Collins and Dr. Kevin Kelleher. The purpose of this webinar was to provide clarity about prevailing public health advice and to answer questions from participants. It was reaffirmed that schools with risk mitigation measures in place provide a safe environment for staff and students. While the general advice, as we all know, is that people should stay at home, this does not apply to essential workers who provide an essential service for priority groups such as children with special needs. Teachers and SNAs are essential workers.

Our aim, as always, is to work collaboratively with our education partners. Their work is invaluable. Where there are concerns, we have always sought to provide assurances so that staff could have confidence to return to in-person learning. We provided guidance about how special schools can operate at 50% capacity to offer these schools a return to learning, knowing that the vast majority of these students cannot engage with remote learning. We provided guidance and flexibility for staff members who are at high risk from Covid-19 to ensure their safety. We put in place flexibility for schools to manage the situation and return to in-person learning over the coming days, and to organise and manage their staff in that context. This was part of an effort to prioritise in-school provision for just over 23,000 children with special educational needs.

This will hopefully be the first step in a wider return to school for all students. It was positive to be able to announce last Monday that agreement had been reached with all partners for students with special educational needs to return on a phased basis from this coming Thursday. The return of special schools on a 50% in-person basis is a first step in the wider return to school for students with special educational needs who have the greatest level of need. These is a commitment to begin in-person learning for students in primary school mainstream classes from 22 February. Discussions are ongoing with all partners about the next steps for students with additional needs at post-primary level and in mainstream primary schools.

As Minister of State, I meet regularly with parents and advocacy groups representing young people with additional needs. I know the importance of ensuring the continuation of education at this time, so I was delighted to announce that in addition to the phased full reopening of schools, a supplementary programme of in-person tuition or care for students with additional needs will be available in home settings. It can commence from 11 February and can be undertaken at any point up until the end of April. It is intended to facilitate five hours of home tuition or care per week for a four-week period. The purpose of the programme is to enhance the learning experience for these pupils and build on the learning taking place as part of the remote provision by the school. These hours supplement existing school provision provided remotely and therefore they will be delivered outside of the normal school day and-or at weekends, if necessary.

Parents will be able to bank the hours to be used at Easter if they are unable to utilise the hours during this period. As this will be a supplementary programme, participation by teachers and SNAs is voluntary. This is a unique programme which recognises the challenges faced by students with the greatest level of need and will help to support them as they make the transition back to the school setting. Eligibility is based on the expanded criteria of last year's in-home summer provision programme.

In addition, the Department has been working closely with schools and providing guidance since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. This guidance was first issued to schools in the spring of 2020 and was subsequently updated and agreed with stakeholders later last year to reflect the experience and feedback of staff and students. The guidance was reissued at the start of this year with the incorporation of these updates, which have now been brought together into one dedicated guidance document for schools and families supporting students with additional needs. Some of the themes in the special educational needs, SEN, guidance document are the role of schools and teachers in engaging with pupils with SEN, teachers and school leaders working to support pupils with SEN, keeping in touch with parents and guardians, keeping pupils with SEN safe in the distance learning environment and resources for teachers.

The guidance also provides information on the role of the class teacher, the special education teacher and SNAs. For special classes at primary level, the guidance makes clear that class teachers should phone parents three times per week and should have daily phone engagement with pupils. SNAs should have twice-daily engagement with parents to support them in developing and maintaining the child's schedule. For special classes at post-primary level, the guidance sets out that the SEN co-ordinators should be in daily contact with students in special classes so that programmes of work, individual timetables and structures are planned collaboratively with parents.

For students with SEN in mainstream classes, the guidance indicates that, at primary level, the special education teacher should be the nominated school liaison who engages with parents by phone twice per week. There are currently more than 13,550 special education teachers allocated to mainstream schools, supporting the additional learning needs of pupils. The teacher will also have prepared an at-home support plan. All of this is in addition to the support of the mainstream class teacher who provides for all pupils in his or her class. At post-primary level, the subject teacher will continue to have overall responsibility to differentiate tasks to match the learning needs of students with SEN. The output will be reviewed and regular feedback provided to parents at agreed times. SEN co-ordinators will also have regular communication and engagement with students on their caseload. SNAs will also engage with parents and students as a liaison between home and school as well as supporting delivery of the education of the students. Class teachers will also work with SEN co-ordinators and the pastoral care teams to support an integrated whole-school approach to students with SEN.

Detailed support and advice for schools regarding the delivery of distance learning is available through the Department's support services and agencies and this includes support and advice regarding those students with special educational needs. The Department also has a professional development service for teachers which provides extensive support and advice for teachers and schools on the provision of remote learning. Schools can also apply for the assistance of a professional development service teacher adviser for tailored school support in all subject areas at primary and post-primary levels. This includes support on the use of digital technologies to support remote learning. This leadership team is also available to support school leaders through direct school support, national programmes and localised networks.

The National Centre for Guidance in Education has developed a variety of resources including articles, recorded webinars and information notes about guidance counselling incorporating remote and online support. Guidance for parents is also available in a number of languages at gov.ie to support the continuity of learning during this period. Information and guidance on online safety is also available at www.webwise.ie. The Department of Education's portal, Scoilnet, of which Senators may have heard, contains some 21,000 curriculum-tagged resources which can be used by teachers, students and parents to support the continuity of learning in the remote environment. The Department's National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, has developed an updated series of resources and animated videos for parents and students during this period of school closures. These build on previous materials that proved popular with parents. The videos feature important updated well-being advice and guidance and include tips on how students can stay positive, active and connected and on how parents can support their children's daily routine.

This is bearing in mind the fact that the ideal is in-person support, which is what we want to return to in due course for all children. Irish language and Irish Sign Language interpretation versions are also available and are posted on the Department's Twitter feed and on gov.ie.

There are also dedicated supports through the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. Schools that established their first autism spectrum disorder, ASD, special class in 2020-21 were assigned an NCSE link adviser during the four-day training course in September and October of 2020. These advisers remain assigned to these classes and are available to offer support and advice to the special class teacher. The NCSE is also providing support to parents and teachers through dedicated helplines. These telephone lines are operated daily and offer advice and contact with local special educational needs organisers, SENOs. The NCSE has developed a suite of short videos for teachers on how best to support children and young people with special educational needs when they are learning remotely. These videos include strategies and advice for engaging learners with distance learning as well as more general advice about protecting student well-being. The NCSE has a visiting teacher service, which provides direct support to children who are blind and visually impaired and deaf or hard of hearing, as well as their teachers. These teachers remain available to provide advice and support.

The Department's inspectorate has resolved to engage closely with schools catering for students with additional needs to ensure the supports are being provided effectively. The inspectorate confirms that all special schools have a plan in place for remote learning. Schools have distributed digital devices to parents. Daily contact with the parents and students forms part of its planning, mostly by telephone, email or on any dedicated school platform.

I understand the frustration and fears of parents and families with children with additional needs. They want their children to be in school with their teachers, SNAs and friends. They would be in their regular routine at school and be happier and healthier in a holistic way. I also understand the queries and concerns of our education staff. It is important to remember that we are all committed to the common goal of supporting young people with special educational needs in their education and development. Everybody on all sides of the education system is dedicated to their role and tireless in their duties. While all of society is facing challenges at present, this commitment and dedication should not be forgotten, for it is this that will ensure that solutions are found to support those who need it most. It is this single-minded focus that drives all of us.

I am sharing time with Senator Conway.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and, in particular, her remit of special education and inclusion. I thank her for the detailed update. I am delighted there is a resolution for children with special needs and their parents. It has been a difficult and traumatic time. The lack of structure and routine has led to very serious outcomes, such as children not sleeping and not eating. They just do not have the structure they had when they were attending their schools. A recent Health Research Board-funded study was carried out under one of the Covid-19 rapid response grants in the Dublin City University school of psychology. The study was carried out in particular on children with autism. It shows there was a decline in abilities and skills. There is a decline in ability to self-regulate emotions and more challenging behaviours. It is proven beyond doubt that there has been regression for children with special needs. This takes an incredible toll on the parents and other members of the family.

I wish to acknowledge the principals, teaching staff and special needs assistants who support in-person learning. We have a robust special needs educational system and it will deliver the best education and care to children. On Thursday next, 11 February, more than 124 special needs schools across Ireland will return to a form of normality, and on Thursday, 25 February, we look forward to seeing special classes in mainstream primary schools. In the broader context, it is the wider community and people who have done everything possible in recent weeks to bring Covid-19 numbers down that have helped to bring us to the point where we are able to reopen our schools in accordance with the updated work safety protocol. An extremely detailed guide has been sent out to special schools with regard to how this will work.

It is positive that the public health guidance from NPHET notes that infection control and prevention measures in place for schools since September are still considered highly effective for risk mitigation.

The intense efforts of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and the Department of Education are very much appreciated. In meeting with many of the groups of stakeholders and working together a successful outcome has been achieved. I understand that the Minister of State has met organisations representing parents of children with additional needs, as well as the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, AsIAm, Down's Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, Family Carers Ireland and the Ombudsman for Children. I welcome her update in regard to school liaison for parents and pupils, Scoilnet and NEPS supports for well-being.

I have spoken with principals and teachers who are very eager to reopen schools. They understand that supports are needed for parents and they want to engage again with children and offer respite. I have a number of questions for the Minister of State. First, in regard to the 50% return to classes this week on alternate days, can the Minister of State confirm that school principals will decide the measures around how this takes place? On transport, can we consider dedicated buses to schools in this period to reduce mixing of children from different schools? In my home town of Ballinasloe, children attending the special school, St. Teresa's, and children from a special needs class at the town primary school, Scoil an Chroí Naofa, would take the same bus. What measures can we put in place to reduce that mixing? In regard to the supplementary support programme and the numbers of SNAs and teachers, which the Minister of State mentioned is a voluntary-type programme, is consideration being given to providing additional supports for principals to deliver this programme?

We are very aware that the supports that are being put in place will allow children to return to some type of normality. That is what we are all fighting for and what the Minister of State has achieved in getting these schools reopened. In terms of my queries, it is important there is engagement from the relevant departments to ensure a successful first few weeks because the eyes will be on us.

In the first instance, I too welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the House and I acknowledge the work she has done. The narrative and the media coverage up to just after Christmas was about the leaving certificate. Up to that point, the only person focused on special needs education and the need to get these young people back to school was the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I know it is her job, but she is doing a good job advocating within her Department for special needs children. It is my considered view that this issue was kept on the agenda and that we are where we are today because of the dogged determination of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. Since taking up her role eight or nine months ago, her engagement with the various groups has been fantastic. On occasion, I have asked her to meet groups and she has readily and willingly met them. The engagement has been proactive and substantial and very productive.

We have come a long way in terms of special education in this country. It has been very regrettable that children who require the supports have not been able to access them for significant chunks of the last 12 months. I was one of the children who in the late 1980s-early 1990s would have been considered a special education student in terms of needs and requirements. At that time, there were no support or resource teachers and no SNAs but there was a visiting teacher for the visionally impaired who visited a school once a year and had a chat with the teachers. The teachers were the SNAs and the support structures. They were committed to ensuring that someone who had ability was able to progress through the system to university. Today, thankfully, we have a much more structured system, one that, by and large, has seen significant increases in funding year-on-year for the past number of years.

Very little good comes out of a pandemic. I am convinced that going forward the toolkits, support structures and alternative mechanisms that have been devised by the Minister's officials and teachers at national and local level will serve to enhance the experience from which young people with special educational needs will benefit.

We will be looking at a range of supports, for example, toolkits to support parents at home. Unfortunately, some children with special needs have to be at home for periods. The structure and infrastructure is there now to be able to support them with equipment, toolkits, videos, work plans and work programmes that have been designed to help with home schooling. That is extremely welcome.

I spoke to the Minister of State previously and I raised in the House the need to review the visiting teacher system for those who are visually impaired and hearing impaired in mainstream schools. Lockdown has shown that some visiting teachers have gone above and beyond the call of duty in terms of engaging and liaising with parents but, sadly, that is not the case universally. During the first lockdown in particular, some parents of visually impaired children did not receive even one telephone call from the visiting teacher. The Minister has committed to reviewing the structure of the visiting teacher system within the Department. I know she has taken on board my proposal that a parent of a visually impaired student would participate in the review. I ask her to provide an update on the status of the review. I commend the Minister of State and her team on getting us where we will be next Thursday and going forward.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I have known her a long time. We soldiered together on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, so I, too, know of her absolute commitment to be successful at whatever she does in every walk of political life. She has demonstrated that time and again in her commitments in other areas of politics. I acknowledge that and I welcome her to the House.

As the Minister of State is aware, education is about enabling all children in line with their abilities to live full and independent lives so that they can contribute to their communities and interact with others. That is most important. All children, including children with additional or special needs, have a right to an education which is appropriate to their needs. That is important. I want to spend most of my time talking about special needs because it is an important aspect of the debate. Everyone involved in children's education has had difficulty, be they teachers, SNAs, guardians or whoever else, those on the front line or the back line.

In recent weeks I was drawn to the major contribution made by Adam Harris of AsIAm. He has done amazing work. I know of him and his commitment in this area. He is someone who has personal experience of supported education and the needs around that. Education for people with additional needs is much broader. There is no one-fit solution or answer. I think the Minister of State said that in her opening comments. Adam Harris has given an awful lot of consideration and advocacy in this area.

I have spoken to parents who have children at home. One parent has two boys at home, one aged seven and the other aged eight. The challenges are enormous. One child has a hearing disability. The challenges and difficulties resulting from the Covid restrictions are enormous for all of us, but when one has two children with many complex and diverse needs, it is very difficult to communicate with them and explain why they are not going to school. Other children consider that they are somehow locked out. School is more than just education, it involves interaction, social engagement and personal development. When we talk about education, it is important that we talk about the cognitive aspects of education, but also about the emotional, imaginative, artistic, physical and spiritual aspects of it. Education is holistic and all of those aspects are critically important to children's early formation. For that matter, it is important for the formation of us all as we evolve, grow and learn. I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive and detailed presentation. I also thank her officials in the Department and the Minister, Deputy Foley, for their engagement. Above all, I thank the teachers.

I know teachers who are afraid to go back to school.

I know care workers who are involved in schools who are afraid to go back. I know canteen ladies who work in schools who do not really want to go back. However, we all know the importance of getting back at some point. These workers need reassurance and must have confidence that supports are available for them too. This is not a question of the Government pushing everybody back to schools. It is encouraging all of those who participate in education to return to some form of education in a controlled way that supports all of them.

It is important that we consider people who have specific educational needs. For many years, I was a director of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. Blind people have never been able to have a proper educational programme for their young children. They have one-to-one home schooling. For children without eye sockets, the only education they have is a one-to-one session for three hours per week. This was long before Covid-19 came along. The only interaction they had was a pilot scheme in Munster, based in Cork, that has been going on for 15 or 20 years and now needs to be re-evaluated. They cannot be left out either. People who have a visual or hearing disability face challenges and they are also important. There is an obligation and commitment to provide education for all of our children and citizens. I think of the work the Cathaoirleach has done on Irish Sign Language and for people who are deaf. Long before Covid, many people were locked out of having meaningful development in their lives and achieving their full potential in order that they can play a meaningful role in their communities and as professionals. Having a disability does not mean someone is not academic or capable of great things. That is another misconception among members of the public.

I do not doubt the Minister of State's commitment. This needs resources. Covid has thrown up a number of additional challenges. When it has passed, we need to ask how we can provide real opportunities for everybody to learn. I ask the Minister of State to do that. I will drop a line to her Department on the visually impaired and blind children who need support.

While the Minister of State is here and given her portfolio of special education and her commitment to that area, I note the importance of constantly updating our literature. I looked at some literature on special education today. There are always new circumstances and new families starting off with a child who may have additional or special needs. They have simple questions. What, for example, is special educational need, learning disability or inclusive education and what supports are available to their children? How are special education needs being assessed and met? What will their children learn in school and how will they make the transition from primary to second level school? How can parents support children more in their education? These are the fundamental questions asked by families when they want a simple A to Z of how to interface with the education system. It is a lonely road for many people and it is not simple. I took the time to visit the Department's website and other websites. There seems to be an absence of updated information. While there is good information, it needs to be more relevant and up-to-date.

I wish the Minister of State well. She has many challenges and I know she is up for them. The start will be to see our children going back into mainstream schools next week. I have no doubt that everyone is here to support everyone else, be it the lollipop man or woman, the person working in the school canteen, the special needs assistant or the teacher. It is a positive but difficult step. I thank the unions which represent the teachers. They more than anyone know the value and importance of educating our children.

We are discussing 18,552 students with complex needs who attend 124 special schools. I know two of these schools, St. Anne's School in the Curragh and St. Mark's School in Newbridge, very well. We are also discussing 1,836 special classes in 964 schools across the country.

When we refer to that number of students, we are talking about individuals, families, parents and siblings. Those tight family units are very much part of their child's struggle to achieve their potential within an educational setting. There is no more important work that any parent can do than that which they do for a child with special needs. From the time the child is born or receives a diagnosis, the world is a battle. Parents have to try to get assessments, therapists and an appropriate place for the child, which it is to be hoped will be within the community in which the family live. As Senators are aware, all too often that is not possible.

There is no doubt that the path through life is more difficult for those with special needs. A child may be slower to walk or his or her speech may be difficult to understand. Some may differ in terms of their physical appearance. We use the word "special" in the context of special schools and people and students with special needs, but I can honestly say there is a very special ability to love young people with intellectual or special needs and, indeed, for them to love us. There is no doubt that every milestone that is reached is a special blessing. Every time a young person has the opportunity to excel at something, we all excel as a class, as a family and, indeed, as a community in terms of some of their significant achievements.

In the past 20 years, we have seen many improvements in special education. We have a long way to go but we certainly have seen many improvements and that must be acknowledged. I thank the Minister of State for the work that has been done and for the amount of consultation and engagement that has been carried out to get to the point whereby special schools will open next Thursday. We were all very disappointed that the two dates proposed for reopening did not come to fruition. I appreciate the difficult and hard work with all the various stakeholders to get to this point. It is very welcome that there is a concrete plan in place to support children with special educational needs to return to in-person schooling. The Minister of State referred to remote learning for children with special needs. I have no doubt that it is a help for some of them, but I do not think it is a help for the majority. However, I appreciate the efforts being made in that regard. The plan we have gives certainty to children and their families regarding when they can return to school, which is very important. The Government originally decided not to reopen schools in order to minimise the mobility of the entire population and so that 1 million people would not be travelling around at the same time. This was done to support the suppression of Covid-19 in communities.

I acknowledge and agree with the decision by the Minister of State and the Government to really try to provide for children with special needs because all Members saw how many of those children regressed during the first lockdown. We have heard story after story of heartbroken parents who want only the best for their children and who have been bled dry in so many situations in the context of trying to provide for them. Their frustration, despair and the sense of deep love that goes with parenting a child with special needs were evident.

Schools not being open has had significant adverse consequences at societal level.

The loss of the regular attendance at school, the social interaction with friends and peers, the direct, face-to-face access with teachers and SNAs and the therapy interventions has all presented a huge challenge and, again, a real risk of regression to the learning, social and emotional development and well-being of these pupils.

There is one cohort we have not really discussed in all this, namely, the thousands of children with special needs who attend mainstream classes in mainstream schools. The Minister of State says talks on getting them back to school are ongoing, and I have absolutely no doubt but that they are, but I am really concerned about them. I am concerned, as we all are, about all children who are not in school, but those who were in mainstream classes have in a sense been forgotten about. I have had contact from a number of parents who are concerned about their children regressing. We have to appreciate that, like the July provision, this new provision has been put in place, and I commend the Minister of State and the Department on doing that. It is really important. However, parents who are doing their best to make sure that their children with special needs have the opportunity to push themselves and be in mainstream classrooms feel discriminated against. It reminds me of my brother, who has Down's syndrome. One day, to try to get out of some mischief he had caused, he turned around and said to the person who was in charge, "I have a little bit of Down's syndrome", to explain that perhaps a special dispensation should be given to him. Of course, it should not have been given to him. Is that what we are talking about now, that because somebody has "a little bit" of Down's syndrome or "a little bit" of autism and they are in a mainstream setting, they will be forgotten about? I am very concerned about this cohort, and I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could give us a little more direction in that regard.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for outlining the position on special education provision. I think all colleagues across the House very much welcome the announcement that special schools will reopen from this Thursday at 50% capacity. As others have done, I acknowledge on behalf of the Labour group the hard work that has gone into ensuring that reopening and I commend the hard work of all those involved: parents, parents' representatives, unions, staff and education partners. I welcome the fact that children in special classes in mainstream schools will return on 22 February. The Minister of State also outlined other plans.

On a broader level, however, we need to acknowledge much more - not just acknowledge but actually put in place practical recognition for - the enormous deprivation for all our children, particularly children with additional needs, who have missed out and been denied education not only in recent weeks but also for a number of months last year. Others have mentioned children with additional needs in mainstream schools. I am thinking of children I know with autism or children with Down's syndrome who participate in a normal school year in mainstream classes. They and their peers in the mainstream classes still do not have any clarity or certainty as to when their classes or schools will reopen. I know there are enormous operational and logistical difficulties with partial reopenings and blended teaching at primary and secondary level of in-person and remote learning. That is very difficult for school boards and principals. Any of us on school boards are well aware of the difficulty of trying to manage that. It may well be that a more practical resolution is to open all schools for all pupils when transmission rates allow, but we have to acknowledge the enormous impact on children with additional needs, and children more generally, of the lack of certainty or clarity as to when they will be going back to school. I see various indications being given that once special classes in mainstream schools have reopened fully from 22 February, it may be that primary schools, including all classes, will be in a position to reopen in full from early March, with less certainty about reopening dates for secondary schools.

It is this lack of clarity that is causing such trauma and distress to so many students. All of us have been contacted by individual parents who have children with additional needs. The parents can really see the regressive impact on those children of being deprived of education. There was a heartfelt article in yesterday's Sunday Independent by Sarah Caden giving voice to some of the children affected. The article quoted a mother who voiced her feelings of being left behind. She has a child who has additional needs and who is in a mainstream class. Therefore, she has no certainty about when the child can go back. I know the Minister of State is putting in place five hours per week of home-based teaching and care support, but clearly this is not a sustainable long-term resolution and does not address the real needs of such children.

In the Dáil my colleague, the Labour Party education spokesperson, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has called on the Minister of State to remain in contact with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to secure more clarity on vaccinations for teachers and special educational needs staff as soon as possible. These are issues on which clarity and certainty is needed.

Although we have not really seen practical recognition of this, it is clear school closures have already had severe impacts on children with additional needs, vulnerable children and children in special schools. We need to ensure there is recognition in practice of what these detrimental impacts have been. We need to see clarity on the impact this has had.

I have seen far more in the British press about this. The British Government has done so badly generally on Covid-19 in so many ways. Yet, as long ago as last summer the British Government was putting billions of pounds into a catch-up fund to ensure that all children, including those with additional needs and children in mainstream schools, would be able to catch up on the education and related benefits that they had missed out on through the school closures.

We have to recognise that generation Covid-19 are greatly impacted by this. Our children and young people have missed out on so much. We are not seeing acknowledgement of the long-term effect on those children. We have not seen any plan to put in place a catch-up mechanism of the sort that we have seen elsewhere. We need to be looking now at post-Covid supports. We need to look in the short term at our dates for the return to school for all children in mainstream classes. We need to look beyond to post-Covid supports and how we make it up to the children who, because they have additional needs, have seen regression as well as to all of our children who have been deprived of education over such a long period.

We have debated Covid-19 policy more broadly. The Labour Party put forward a proposal for a national aggressive suppression strategy, the equivalent of looking to a way of achieving zero-Covid while we await the longer term roll-out of vaccinations. Unfortunately, there has been resistance from Government to that. I believe that resistance is changing and I welcome the proposed introduction of mandatory hotel quarantining. I have looked at Dublin Airport arrivals and departures. I see a flight arriving this evening from Lanzarote. We have all seen the reports about people using Ireland as a back door route. Still, flights are allowed into Ireland from Dubai whereas Britain has banned them.

We need to be far more strict about ensuring we have a containment policy and an elimination policy on Covid. It is simply not good enough to say it is not practical to close down flights from particular locations, where travel is unlikely to be essential, while saying it is practical to keep children with additional needs deprived of school or of any clarity on when they will return to school. We have all come to accept almost like Stockholm syndrome that it is practical for us to be stopped from going more than 5 km for exercise, for children to be engaged in home schooling and remote schooling for lengthy periods, and for parents to try to work around all of that. Many of us are experiencing that. Yet, we are told it is not practical to take up the lessons of New Zealand and Australia and so many other countries that have adopted far clearer policies. As a result of those policies they have been able to see their children return to school and have reduced the negative impact of Covid within their communities.

I will end with a plea to the Minister of State. Let us see from Government a clear acknowledgement of the impact upon children of the closure of education, particularly the impact upon children with additional needs, which is the Minister of State's direct responsibility. Let us also see clarity in the short term as to when children in mainstream classes will be returning to school.

I am very pleased that children are returning to special education. As others have said it is a very positive step for the more than 8,000 pupils enrolled in special schools. The later return of the 7,500 pupils enrolled in special classes in mainstream primary schools is also very welcome. Some of these children suffered the most during the first lockdown and we all know that it is vital that that routine, that friendship and that learning are continued in this incredibly difficult time. There were two attempts to return these children to the classroom, attempts that failed in part due to a lack of communication. I hope the communication that was previously lacking is re-established.

It is vital that any future attempts to open up further sectors of both primary and secondary education are done with the full consultation of those involved. I was disappointed by some of the commentary around the role of teachers' unions in the reopening process. In fairness, the unions had the safety of children and staff to the fore in their considerations. It very much seems to me that relationships need to be repaired. I would like to hear how the Department has sought to mend relations with teachers and their unions and that is particularly important as we face into major decisions around the leaving certificate. To address that matter very briefly, the Minister, Deputy Foley, has announced two distinct processes for the 2021 leaving certificate, namely, planning for examinations and scoping out a corresponding measure different from examinations that can also be offered to students. A clear line of communication with trust and respect on all sides will be vital in the roll-out of whatever format is adopted, and this must include students and their representatives as well.

I ask about a support line for principals to help them with any issues they may encounter in the reopening process. Other Senators have spoken about this already but will the Minister of State give more details about the assistance provided? Will they be able to ask for extra resources such as PPE, surgical masks or testing kits if they become concerned about Covid-19 trends in the locality? In a situation where students are returning on alternate days it is vital supports be provided to parents for those days when the children are not attending school. I am keen to hear what outreach there will be and that it is communicated to parents in good time. School transport also poses a logistical problem. How will children be collected on the designated days they are attending school? Once again clear communication will be important. Parents must be given notice in advance of pick-up times. For many of the children we are talking about in this debate routine is essential and parents must be able to plan for the week ahead and explain this to their children.

Over the next few weeks we are bound to hear lots of varying opinions and predictions about when various sections of the economy will reopen. I ask that the Cabinet not second-guess the return of all schoolchildren and the possible format of State examinations. Debating the merits of the various options should be done with parents, stakeholders and the unions using trusted lines of communication. I wish, as do all Members, every child, teacher, SNA, parent and principal all the best for Thursday and next Monday. These teachers and SNAs do such important work and they are going back to work in very uncertain times. The recent frustration of the families of these children during the lockdown shows how valuable the work they do is so go n-éirí go geall libh ar fad.

The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this critical issue. We have to bring ourselves back to a few weeks ago when parents of children with special needs did not know where they were. One moment, they were told that the schools were to open and the next moment, they were told the schools were not to open. Many parents who contacted me felt they were not heard. I know that as Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, Deputy Madigan is working with the likes as AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and Family Carers Ireland, and I would like to acknowledge that.

I am glad to hear that special schools are opening this week. Mainstream classes are also to open later this month. My colleague, Senator Higgins, and the Committee on Disability Matters wrote to the Minister of State and stakeholders about the need for a safe return to personal education for children with special or additional needs, and the importance of other options and supports for children who are at high risk and their families. Like myself, the committee was clear in calling for special needs assistants to be prioritised on the list for a vaccine. We welcome that.

I will not repeat what has already been outlined by others in the House today. I have only one question about the most vulnerable children in our society, going forward. We must remember that children with special educational needs are children from all communities. We have to think about our children with special needs who will be sitting the applied and traditional leaving certificate examinations this year. There are few supports, if any, in place for children with additional needs in second level education. We have seen over the past year that our most vulnerable children are being left behind. My question to the Minister of State and the Department is what is to happen, going forward? What if, in two years' time, something else hits us, perhaps another pandemic? What will be the solution for these children, going forward, so that we will never again see this happen to the most vulnerable children in our society? Other Senators have outlined studies that have shown that many of our children with special needs have dramatically lost out on life skills. Instead of me speaking for eight minutes, I have only one question and I would be more than delighted if the Minister of State could answer it. What is the solution, going forward? That is my only question.

I thank the Minister of State for her outline. There is little doubt that this pandemic has probably had a greater impact on young adults, students and schoolchildren than any other element of society. There are, for sure, people whose incomes have been affected, who have lost their jobs and businesses, but in terms of real stress points, and there are many, the younger cohort has undergone the greatest degree of stress and pressure. Those young people did not have worldly experiences to assist them through it. There is little doubt that the area for which the Minister of State has responsibility has been a particular crunch point. We have seen that during the various lockdowns. There is no doubt that parents who have a child with special educational or additional needs are under enormous pressure. The normal supports that they might have had available to them, whether through grandparents or extended families, have been restricted because of people's inability to move between households.

I am acutely aware, from speaking to the people who have been in touch with me, of the real pressure and trauma in households. I know of one family with three children with special needs, all of whom are on the autism spectrum. Anyone who has had experience of dealing with children with autism will see the pressure that is being put on families when that is multiplied by three in a Covid environment and total lockdown. There was much hope that children would be back to school earlier, but for various reasons, of which we are all now well aware, that did not happen. There is a great expectation now from parents that there will be a relatively quick return to the normal structure of education for children with special needs, insofar as there can be.

While the provision of 50% attendance is welcome, parents have communicated to me that they would prefer a half day five days a week rather than a full day every second day. For parents who work with children with special needs, particularly those on the autism spectrum, the notion of regularity and consistency in their routine is important. I accept where the Minister of State has had to get to but she might look at that. If we are to continue in this vein for a number of months, that suggestion should be looked at in order that they would have the same routine every day, even if it is for a number of hours rather than for the entire day. I acknowledge that there are complications relating to school transport and all that goes with it but that is something that needs to be addressed.

The Minister of State has identified a range of additional supports, which are welcome. As always, we would like to have more if possible because families have come through what in many cases is an intolerable burden. Parents have been taken to the brink of mental collapse. There is no doubt about that. That is something of which we need to be mindful as well. Any additional supports the Government can put in place for parents through access to personal counselling would be welcome. While that falls within the remit of another Department and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is making great advances in that area, the two areas are inextricably linked. We need to do more on that. I thank the Minister of State for what she has done to date and I wish her well.

I thank the Minister of State for being here today and for the considerable work she has done in bringing us to this stage of phased reopening. On Thursday, children with special educational needs will return to school on a shared basis. They will be afforded the opportunity to experience school life and in the current environment we can iron out the emerging issues before we go into the mid-term break. Following the break, children with special educational needs in mainstream schools will also return to the education setting. This is very much welcomed by those children and their parents.

We are all aware that online learning is not for every child and takes an amount of supervision and support that cannot always be delivered in the home. In-person learning is the most appropriate and effective method. School is not just about education. It is also about personal development and social and life skills. The entire experience of getting ready for school, attending, making friends and falling out with them, working together, taking turns and all the little moments of school are about learning for life. Children with special needs live for this and look forward to the routine, the faces, and the surroundings. They have been denied this since before Christmas so it is heartbreaking that it has taken until now for this reopening to occur, through no fault of the Minister of State's own diligent work.

I am mindful that the Covid numbers in the country are frightening. Every day, the numbers of people losing family members is strikingly high. Behind every statistic is a person whose life has been impacted by the lives of others and who is mourned and missed. I understand the reservations aired by SNAs and teachers about the return to school. I appreciate that considerable work has gone into providing the supports demanded. Medical advice, personal protective equipment, PPE, and reassurances have been provided and accommodations have been made for those with personal medical concerns or loved ones they care for who are in a vulnerable category. I hope the 50% return will become a 100% return as quickly as possible.

While 50% is a vast improvement on none at all, it is not however in the best interests of the child for the return to routine to be denied even half of the time.

I thank the Minister of State for her in-person supplementary programme which is another great initiative which will benefit up to 23,000 children. I cannot waste the opportunity but to beat the drum for the autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units and for the children who do not have an opportunity to go to school in their local community. There are areas and postcodes without ASD units in schools. We need to keep going with the work on that area which I know is being wholeheartedly done by the Minister of State.

I am aware that the argument of older, outdated and restrictive buildings has been the reason for many of the delays but, frankly, some of the schools are getting away with blatant discrimination against children with autism and their right to be accommodated in their local community.

This time last year I attended a public meeting of Involve Autism and it was heartbreaking to listen to parent after parent citing the extremes that they are obliged to go to to secure a place in school for their child. The Minister of State has brought this along and provided many more units, way beyond what would be expected in the very short time that the Minister of State is in the Ministry. I congratulate her for that. I ask her to keep the pressure up and not to allow the school boards abdicate their responsibility and accountability to her in that regard.

I cannot let education go by without congratulating the Minister of State most sincerely for the extraordinary work she has done in the decision to open Scoil Choilm as an ASD specific school. Today I ask, even though I have asked more formally in another context, for a progress update in that regard. Is everything going full steam ahead and are we ready for the September of this year opening? There is great anxiety on the part of all those involved to obtain the reassurance that in the midst of Covid-19 and in all that is going on, together, naturally, with all of the other issues which occupy her Ministry at the moment, that we are still advancing towards the opening of that school, equipping it, together with attending to its governance and oversight. I know that the Minister of State is preparing a report in a more formal sense in another context for me on that issue. Can she kindly give a little nod to them as I know that they are out there listening in this afternoon? I thank the Minister of State very much for her continued, dedicated work which is very much appreciated.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and I express my sincere thanks to her for being available to all Members of this House, and not just party members, and for her response when we come to her looking for assistance.

The first thing I want to do today is to thank the principals of the schools who have managed to keep their schools running, albeit remotely. They are managing staff, parents, students and boards of management, all of which is taking place from their own homes. I also want to acknowledge administration staff, porters and various other people like cleaners who are going into schools and maintaining them while students are not there. To my former colleagues in the teachers' unions, it is wonderful that they have sat down and found a way forward with the Minister of State. She is to be congratulated for having managed to do that.

One of the things upon which I wrote to the Minister was the need to start looking at antigen testing in schools. The Austrians, Germans and Italians are doing this and it is being done in Taiwan and China. I cannot for the life of me understand what the blockage is in this country. Luke O’Neill talks every single week about why we are not using antigen testing because it will detect very high rates of virus and will allow people to manage the situation in a much better way. I ask that the Minister of State bring this issue back to her Department and to the Minister to ask if we had antigen testing available to us, could this be a way in which we could have schools open and working in a much better way?

On the voluntary aspect of this issue, I want to compliment both special needs assistants and the teachers who have stepped up to the plate. This brings forward a question on the vaccine issue. To my mind these are now front-line workers and they are putting themselves at risk.

We are telling them not to visit other houses, yet we are asking them to engage with parents and families and put themselves at risk. In my view, both the special needs students and the staff engaging with them daily should be moved up the risk categories, be referred to as front-line workers and treated in the same way a nurse or doctor in an emergency department would be treated with respect to Covid-19. I have been told that I should thank the Minister of State for not reopening mainstream schools straight away and that we must have a more co-ordinated move forward. That is a good idea.

A number of parents have spoken to me about speech therapy and occupational therapy and how they come under the remit of the HSE when, in fact, the therapies are dealing with children in schools. Covid-19 has provided us with an opportunity to re-examine how we deal with those two issues and to see if we could get speech therapy and occupational therapy assigned to a pool of schools or something similar. There is a major case to be made for that.

On the issue of vulnerable teachers, apart from the vaccine, early in the pandemic the authority to allow a teacher in a high-risk state to remain at home or to stay outside the school was thrown over to boards of management. It is not good enough to allow that to happen. I do not believe it came from the Minister of State, but from the Department. The boards of management are not in any way qualified to determine whether somebody should or should not be in the school. I ask the Minister of State to have a look at that issue.

I must speak about the leaving certificate and junior certificate examinations. I believe it is folly to plan for an examination this year. We saw what happened with the flip-flopping last year. I realise this is outside the Minister of State's remit, but perhaps she would convey it to the Department. It was a flip-flop whereby the examinations were on, off, on again and eventually off. In that context, we must make a final decision. The leaving certificate is either gone or it is not, and we can find an alternative. I recall that when I was in the teachers' union the members would have hanged me if I said we needed to opt for local assessment. They stood up to the plate in 2020 and did it. I do not see any reason that they would not do it again.

Finally, I am concerned about the panel of teachers we are told is available. I am not so sure there are as many teachers available as we are led to believe. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today.

I appreciate Senator Craughwell making it possible to include everybody. I call Senator Byrne, who has three minutes.

I echo many of the comments that have been made by my colleagues. I was particularly struck by Senator Bacik's remark about how we can address problems with regression. This is a particular concern, and I hope a plan is put in place for children with special needs who have regressed. This is obviously based on speaking to their teachers and their families. We must put measures in place.

I agree with Senator Seery Kearney about the importance of continuing to roll out ASD units. If the Minister of State, as one of her legacies in the Department, can ensure this will happen, she will have done a very good job. I also agree with Senator Craughwell about antigen testing.

I wish to raise two issues. One is the question of transport provision, as was mentioned by Senator Warfield and others. The school bus scheme is something of a nightmare every year, as everybody knows. It is particularly important for families of children with special needs. Depending on how long we have to deal with this pandemic in whatever form it takes, the challenges with regard to school transport are going to continue. Perhaps the Minister of State will outline how we can address some of the challenges.

The other matter follows up on what Senator Craughwell mentioned about boards of management in schools. We had a situation in which some boards of management and some schools were prepared to open and wanted to offer provision. They felt they could safely open and the teachers in the schools wanted to meet the special needs concerns of children in their areas.

They were able to point to the fact that adult daycare and respite services remained open in that period. They felt that they could open safely. In many cases, they pointed to the fact that similar schools and classes in the North were often able to open. I disagree with Senator Craughwell in that I think, if there is an appropriate set of guidelines in place from the Department, schools and boards of management should be able to make the necessary decisions. The most important group in all the decision-making has to be the students and their families. They have to come first, ahead of everybody else. If a school is prepared to open, provided that the Department puts clear guidelines in place, then that should be allowed to happen.

I put on record my thanks to the Minister of State, her Department and her staff for the significant work and commitment that they have put in, night and day. I know that from the communications that we have had. They have worked to get students with additional needs back to in-person learning in the classroom. I have worked in this area for many years as a secondary school PE teacher. We have made significant strides as a nation in integrating students with additional needs into the mainstream school setting. That has been a positive experience for staff and students in the wider school population and for students with additional needs. I have seen first hand the toughest of students take students with additional needs under their wings in that PE setting to help them to progress in class. That has been great for them. It has created empathy. It has nearly done more for that student than it has for the student with additional needs and it is heartening to see.

The fact that we are getting students back to in-person learning is positive. It cannot be understated, as other Senators have said. School closures have had a serious impact on our youth and their families. Everybody has been inundated with correspondence and communications from families who have struggled badly. One of the main lessons that we have taken from Covid-19 and the school closures is that we must prioritise the most vulnerable in society. That includes students with additional needs and older people. That is what we are attempting to do as a Government.

I would like to focus on the students who we are not quite getting to at present. I have spoken to the Minister of State about secondary school students. I emphasise the importance of catering for those students in mainstream and specialised settings. We have a fantastic new autism spectrum disorder facility in the school that I taught in, St. Paul's Community College in Waterford, which opened in September and which the Minister of State is more than welcome to visit when Covid and time allow.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and thank her for her work in the role so far. I know that she is passionate about it and making significant improvements. I have to express my annoyance, which is probably an understatement, at the situation over the last four weeks. Unfortunately, the voice of the unions was louder than the voice of those in our community who are vulnerable. We have a responsibility to parents and to children, the vast majority of whom are regressing and losing previously developed skills.

We must recognise the strain the closures have placed on the families, guardians and carers of children with additional needs every day. I will quote a letter I got from a parent. I quoted it last week. It says "I hold you accountable for his blocked access to his constitutional right for education." I welcome the agreement reached last week which the Minister of State explained in her introduction but it is not enough. Asking parents to send their children to school on a day on, day off or week on, week off basis is not good enough. I do, however, know that her hands are tied in this regard. Children with special needs need structure and consistency. I speak as a parent. The unions who represent the essential workers, the teachers and special needs assistants, have a responsibility to make sure that our support for children with special needs returns in full. I ask my colleagues, especially those in the Labour Party, to pass on that message. The unions have a responsibility to ensure a full return.

A parent I spoke to this morning had a question. What percentage of staff have indicated that they will return to work? Is there a commitment to ensure that substitutes will be available to cover any shortfall in staff? I echo what Senator Byrne said; the children must come first.

I welcome the Minister of State's strong support for the school inclusion model under which students receive occupational therapy and speech and language therapy in the school setting. I fully support this and look forward to seeing it rolled out in my area. I also welcome the strong role the Minister of State has played with regard to the provision of special needs classes and autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units in both primary and post-primary schools. We have a shortage of schools providing such places. In my county, there was recently a case in which there were ten applicants for two available places in a special unit at post-primary level. At present, there are no other available places in the county. Along with my colleague, Councillor Garry Murtagh, I am encouraging more schools to facilitate special classes. I welcome the application by St. Mel's College, Longford, to open a class in September. I am working with the Minister of State's office on that matter. Should it be mandatory for all schools to provide such classes?

I again thank the Minister of State for her commitment and for the work she has done in the Department since she was appointed. I ask for some clarity as to when children in mainstream classes are to return. Clarity on the leaving certificate is also extremely important. I thank the Minister of State for her support.

Senator Lombard has a longish two minutes.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his kindness. I welcome the Minister of State and acknowledge my party colleagues for sharing time. It is very appropriate and very helpful. The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. In many ways, she has what is one of the most burdensome jobs in public life at the moment - trying to ensure that children have the opportunity to go back to school. That will be a very significant issue. I acknowledge the work the Minister of State has done in this very important area.

Over the last four weeks, society has been divided. There were children who wanted and needed to go back to school because they were, unfortunately, regressing and their parents and guardians but there were also issues regarding unions and teachers wanting the opportunity to express their view, which is that they wanted a safe environment. Achieving a compromise in that regard was very awkward and hard so I compliment the Minister of State and her Department on working to deliver a compromise.

We have seen great changes in the roll-out of the ASD units. This is something I welcome and acknowledge. Most of the primary schools in my part of the world have applied for units and seen them built over recent years. We have a major issue in respect of secondary schools and second level education. That is one of the gaps. I have often mentioned the case of Bandon Grammar School in Bandon town. The Department has denied the school the opportunity to put in such a unit because it is fee-paying. That is an issue at which we need to look. It is an issue of policy. This Church of Ireland school is denied the opportunity to provide the level of education it wants to provide to its community. The fact that the Department will not back the school in this matter is a major issue for me. The governors of the school have even agreed to waive fees for any child attending that unit if it can ever be built, which we hope it will be. I raise this issue with the Minister of State again because it is key. We need access to these units in all school,s whether fee-paying, Church of Ireland or mainstream.

We need to look at this issue because this is only one case. I have often had the argument that if it were the other way around and such a fee-paying school did not want the unit, there would be uproar. This case is worthy of reflection by the Department. I ask the Minister of State to consider if we could have a change of policy so that fee-paying schools could have the opportunity to get into it.

I call the Minister of State to sum up and respond. In so doing, I personally join in welcoming her to the House. She has six minutes.

It is hardly sufficient time to try to answer many of the queries, but I have done my best to try to take a note.

In my opening remarks I repeated our collective welcome that students with special educational needs will start to return to their classrooms from Thursday of this week. This will be an important milestone from which we can build towards a full return for all students. I thank all the Members here today who have shared their views and experiences. It is clear that the whole House is motivated by a desire to support students with additional needs, particularly at this challenging time.

Many issues and questions have been raised. My officials and I will certainly take account of most of these and try to come back to Senators.

Senators Craughwell and Byrne talked about antigen testing. Ultimately that is led by public health. The HSE does not recommend it at present and the WHO does not recommend it in schools either.

Senator Bacik talked about clarity and certainty, and planning post Covid. The Department keeps that under consideration all the time. We are very concerned about regression. We need to learn from this period of time and bring that forward with us.

In response to Senator Dolan, letters and guidance were issued to all schools regarding the supplementary program. She mentioned school transport, which has safety measures in place. It is, obviously, not logistically possible to provide separate transport arrangements.

Senator Conway mentioned engagement by the NCBI with the NCSE regarding a visiting teacher service for the visually disabled. I will follow up on that as well.

I appreciate Senator Dooley's comments. We are working on all those issues.

I take Senator Boyhan's point about updating documents and the holistic approach he spoke about in education. They are very valid points and I will look further into them.

I know senator Seery Kearney is a strong advocate of ASD units. I am aware of the work of Involve Autism. Obviously, we will open about 1,200 special class places and about 200 special classes. The work is ongoing. Section 37A of the Education Act is always available to me. It is not a mechanism I want to use. In the first instance we want to work with the schools, but I take the Senator's points on board.

In response to Senator Flynn, the lessons we have learned from the whole of society for how to deal with the pandemic is something we need to bring forward as well. I appreciate her comments also.

Senator O'Loughlin has a brother with Down's syndrome and she knows acutely of the needs of children with special needs. Again, I take her contribution on board.

In response to Senator Cummins, I hope to visit St. Paul's in Waterford at some stage when the school has opened. I appreciate his comments about prioritising the most vulnerable, which we must do at all times.

Senator Warfield talked about building good relations and ensuring we have good relations with our education partners. We are in continual engagement with them at all times. There are many constituent parts within the education sector, and we all need to try to work together to ensure that we continue with the reopening of schools and indeed to a full reopening over the coming weeks.

I say to Senator Carrigy that we want to collaborate and work with our education partners. I know that, along with Senator Dolan, he has an interest in all these issues. I hope we can get children with special educational needs back into mainstream schools soon. It was a mobilisation issue which meant that thus far they have not been reopened, but we hope that will happen in the coming weeks.

Obviously, we hope there will be an announcement on the leaving certificate in the near future as well. This matter does not fall not under my remit but I will bring it to the attention of the Minister. I know the advisory council group is meeting on an ongoing basis to try to come up with solutions, but I understand that there is a need for clarity as soon as possible.

Senator Lombard spoke about ASD units in Bandon in County Cork. I will take all his comments on board. I only have a minute left.

There will not be a difficulty if the Minister of State wishes to continue.

The Government's commitment to special education has been clear from the start of this pandemic. It is the first time that the public health advice was not taken on board. This has been a difficult time for families of children with special needs and we must ensure we try to get all of them back to school as soon as possible. It is positive that some of them will be back into a school environment on Thursday next but we want to ensure that this continues. There are approximately 18,500 children with special needs across the education sector so it is only approximately 4% of the entire education environment. As I said, we hope we will be in a position to do that over the next number of weeks. We are continuing our collaboration and intensive engagement with all our education partners, however, because, obviously, teachers and SNAs also have concerns. We are endeavouring to meet all those concerns. As Senator Bacik mentioned, the numbers are coming down as well. Hopefully, that will auger well for the future.

Sitting suspended at 5.03 p.m. and resumed at 5.20 p.m.