I thank the Chair, members and clerk to the committee for the invite to address the committee today.
Established in 1961, Inclusion Ireland is a national rights-based advocacy organisation that works to promote the rights of people with an intellectual disability. To inform this submission, Inclusion Ireland conducted a short survey of 267 parents of children with disabilities on the reopening of schools.
Inclusion Ireland welcomes the reopening of schools and acknowledges the hard work of school staff over the summer period to make it happen. It is important for children to re-engage in education and the social interactions that schools bring. This is especially true for children with disabilities.
In May this year, parents told Inclusion Ireland how home schooling was not working for their child with a disability. Parents were working from home, they had more than one child at home and many children could not engage with education in the home. Now, with the reopening of schools, 51.5% of parents responding to our survey report regression in their child’s education and personal development. This lost ground can often prove difficult, if not impossible, to make back.
The vast majority of children with disabilities - 87.5% - will, their parents report, go back to full-time education. Some 9.5% of parents say their child will go back on a part-time basis with part-time remote learning and 3% of parents indicate their child will be engaged in full-time remote learning.
Some 80% of parents surveyed are worried about sending their children back to school during the Covid-19 period.
Thankfully, the level of worry in children is much less, with 54% having no concerns about returning to school. Concerns for parents include anxiety and the risks regarding Covid-19, no social distancing on school transport and a lack of good information from the Department of Education and Skills. Despite their obvious concerns, 86% of parents say their children will be going back to school.
A total of 11% of respondents to our survey reported that their children will not return to school due to high medical needs. Our previous survey in May found that remote learning was not working for this cohort. Inclusion Ireland raised this issue with the committee on 25 June and we have written to and met the Minister. At present, we do not believe that satisfactory provision is in place to ensure that this very small cohort has access to appropriate education.
While schools are encouraged to create class bubbles, many children share SNAs who may be allocated to students in separate classrooms. We do not believe that this has been addressed appropriately. It must be noted that the impact of class bubbles on children with disabilities will be greater than the impact on their peers. Parents report being told that there will be little or no access to supports such as HSE therapy services, the visiting teacher service, NEPS, assessments and special education teacher resources.
Inclusion Ireland is concerned that special education teachers will be used to cover absences of colleagues. While welcome additional resources have been made available, teachers will, as a precautionary measure, have to stay off work once they display any type of cold-like symptoms. This will place additional burdens on the substitute panel as we approach winter. Resource teachers will be used as cover. As we have already noted, parents are reporting regression in their children. As we have noted, children with disabilities really need these additional supports to make up any lost ground. HSE therapy supports and the visiting teaching service are vital educational supports for children with disabilities. We ask the Department and its partners to look at alternative means of delivering these services to children with disabilities.
A total of 57% of respondents to our survey were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with communications from the Department of Education and Skills. Parents reported that communication from schools was much better. A number of parents commented that the Department's guidelines were so vague that schools were having difficulty working them out, especially in respect of children with disabilities. Respondents stated that they were in the dark about school transport arrangements, sensory breaks, access to mainstream education where a child is transitioning from a special class and, with so many people in schools now wearing face masks, communication needs.
Inclusion Ireland acknowledges the hard work involved in schools reopening. However, parents have expressed some concerns about their children returning to school. Resource teachers must not be diverted from their posts. The Department must ensure that there is adequate cover on local substitute panels. SNAs must be allocated per class and not between classes. If this requires additional resources, we ask that they be made available. There must be comprehensive support guidelines for children who cannot attend school due to high medical needs or a parent's medical needs. These should include access to the home tuition scheme if appropriate. The Department and its partners must examine how previous external supports can be delivered, either through telehealth means or otherwise. Many children will require access to sensory breaks and this must be accommodated within the current guidelines. Will the Department examine whether children can continue their journey into mainstream classes from special education provision?