As you are probably aware, the government has announced its intention to reopen special education schools and special classes next Monday (11th January) during the latest Covid restrictions, which will see all schools closed until at least the end of January.
Fórsa has stated that these plans are unrealistic and I have written to the Minister of Education today (Thursday 7th January) seeking a pause on the implementation of this policy, in order to allow urgent discussions to take place on a model of service provision for SEN students that can be delivered safely.
These plans cannot proceed without due consideration of the operational and safety issues arising, which are considerable. I have advised the minister that, as it stands, it is clear to Fórsa that implementation of this policy is now at significant risk.
Many thousands of staff will be unable to attend work on Monday 11th January, either due to childcare problems, genuine concerns as to the ability of their employer to provide a safe working environment as required in legislation, or both.
Public health advice
Fórsa supports the continuation of educational provision for students with additional care needs, and the union’s view is that a limited service could be delivered, as it was during the summer months last year.
The union is aware of the difficulties faced by SEN students when their education is disrupted, and was critical of the lack of consideration given to special education at the commencement of the school closures in March 2020.
However, the government’s plans to reopen SEN services next week exposes SNAs, SEN students and other school staff to an unacceptable level of risk of infection during a period when health officials are recommending we restrict our movements, as Covid is currently ‘out of control’ in our communities.
It is not clear to Fórsa that this decision is based on specific public health advice from NPHET or the CMO. The union has requested full disclosure of any specific advice on this policy.
SNA members who have contacted the union in the last 24 hours are extremely concerned that they are now expected to work as per normal in the absence of childcare.
There has been no discussion whatsoever on this critical issue.
The general guidance for public service employers on dealing with the challenges of Covid-19 requires home working to be utilised wherever possible when staff cannot access childcare during the pandemic. There has been no discussion on this issue and no guidance issued to boards of management.
The feedback we have received clearly indicates that SNAs with school age children and no available childcare will have to prioritise the needs of their own families and will not be able to attend work if this means leaving children without care or supervision.
Fórsa has also advised the minister that the union has issued correspondence today to school boards of management seeking urgent confirmation that they will guarantee to provide a safe working environment for our members from next Monday in areas such as effective social distancing, and that they will allow staff unable to attend the workplace due to childcare difficulties to work remotely.
The responses we receive from schools will indicate the extent to which those employers are able to facilitate re-opening in a safe manner.
The impossibility of social distancing in an SEN environment is a critical consideration, and I have explained to the minister why the mitigation measures which may be effective in a mainstream class have not been implemented in special schools, as it would be impractical to do so, in addition to similar concerns about SEN school transport.
The union’s priority now is to have these plans paused in order to facilitate a discussion about practical solutions to the challenges we’ve outlined.
We will continue to communicate with our members on the latest developments and, in the meantime, we urge you to continue to follow public health advice and stay safe.
Read Fórsa’s letter to the Minister for Education Norma Foley TD HERE.
Read Fórsa’s letter to school boards of management HERE.