My Department is very conscious of the particular strain that school closures place on children with complex special educational needs and their families.
While most children reportedly adapted reasonably well to remote learning, there is a developing body of evidence which indicated that the absence of school and other supports had a disproportionately negative impact on the lives and wellbeing of children with the most complex special educational needs and their families.
It is for these reasons that my Department has prioritised the reopening of schools and classes for children with the most complex special educational needs.
Throughout January of this year, there has been engagements with education stakeholders on a near-daily basis. All of those meetings were focused on the safe reopening of schools. Recently, the engagements were particularly focused on the more specific question of a limited reopening of in-school provision for children with special educational needs.
Following intensive engagement and input from primary and special education partners, a framework has now been developed and agreed with all partners, including unions and management, in order to achieve a phased return to in-school provision for children with the most complex special educational needs.
Under the framework the following phased return to in-school provision has been agreed:
Phase 1: Special schools will reopen from Thursday 11th February 2021. In accordance with this agreement pupils will attend on a 50 per cent basis to allow for attendance of reduced numbers within the school setting. This will be reviewed in line with public health advice.
Phase 2: Primary Special Classes will reopen from Monday 22nd February 2021.
Guidance documents have issued to schools in advance of this reopening, including updated public health guidance and a framework document which outlines temporary time-bound staffing arrangements, the application of substitution arrangements, time-bound temporary arrangements for pupil attendance, information on school transport options and other matters.
I can also confirm that funding is in place to support implementation of all infection prevention control (IPC) measures required by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) including the provision of appropriate PPE for SNAs and Special Education Teaching staff. Any school that needs additional funding for PPE can get in touch with the Department.