I propose to take Questions Nos. 279, 280, 288, 297, 299, 301, 312, 315, 320, 323, 324 and 327 together.
I am very disappointed that work to support children with complex needs at this difficult time has not been able to proceed. Over the past year, we have all seen how vital in-person education is for children with complex needs.
This matter has been highlighted not only by the families of the children themselves, but also by all the partners in education and representative groups, in regular meetings with me and my officials. Everyone recognises that distance learning does not work for every child.
Recent weeks have seen intense and regular engagement with partners to seek a solution to our shared objective to support children with complex needs return to in-school learning, could be reached.
My Department sought to agree an approach balancing the need to support our most vulnerable children while addressing the issues raised by trade unions and school management bodies.
These included requests for clear messaging around public health to be given directly to their members by Public Health specialists, temporary arrangements during the current phase of reopening for high risk staff and for those experiencing childcare difficulties.
In response my Department set out to the unions how it these concerns would be addressed. This included:
- Temporary flexible accommodations to work remotely or carry out duties where they are not in close contact or providing personal care
- Temporary waivers to notice periods around parental leave and unpaid leave schemes
- Speedy turnaround for applications through the National Childcare scheme with subsidies for full time childcare available
- A webinar to address public health concerns was held by the Deputy CMO Dr Ronan Glynn and senior public health consultants which was directly accessible through online streaming to all education sector staff
Public Health Officials reaffirmed clearly that schools with risk mitigation measures in place provide a safe environment for staff and children.
While the general public heath advice is that people stay at home, this does not apply to workers providing an essential service like teachers and SNAs.
In this context it is considered that schools could reopen for just over 23,000 children with SEN (or just 4% of those who would attend during a full re-opening). These children are those who experience the greatest difficulty benefitting from remote learning.
Despite this there is still no commitment from the primary teacher and SNA trade unions, INTO and FORSA, to advise their members to commence the limited return of in-person learning for children with special educational needs.
I will continue to pursue every avenue to ensure that children with complex needs can return to in-person learning as immediately as possible and I will continue to engage with stakeholders on the issue.
In the interim I am confident that schools will continue to make significant efforts to provide effective remote learning experiences for these children.
My Department has issued updated guidance on continuity of schooling: supporting pupils with Special Educational Needs (with separate guidance for mainstream primary/special schools and for post-primary schools).
This outlines that teachers in special schools and special classes should make every effort to maintain regular contact with all of their pupils, and where appropriate, make provision for one-to-one online supports.
Extensive support and advice for schools regarding the provision of distance learning is also available through the Department’s support services and agencies including for those pupils with special educational needs.