Seanad debates

Friday, 19 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Covid-19 Pandemic

10:30 am

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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It is good to see the Minister of State here, we all very much appreciate her time. I asked for this Commencement matter because of the frustration and worry of parents of children with special needs and those of children with additional needs. The Minister of State is well aware they are at their wits' end.Parents are seeing their children's development regress. The ability of these children to behave socially has been affected and they are struggling to cope. The stories I have heard are devastating.

We were all very glad to hear the announcement that special needs classes and schools would be reopening and I wholeheartedly commend the Minister of State's incredibly hard work and dedication on this matter. However, the phased method, with one day on and one day off and two days in school one week and three the following week, is not sustainable for many students. It is causing havoc for some children. Some do not have the same understanding of time and it is difficult for them to understand why their bus comes one day and not the next when they are used to going to school on a five-day basis. I know that it is the goal of the Government to get these children back into full-time education but what is troubling for many is that they do not know when so-called normality will resume.

I appreciate the Government is working hard to reopen schools sooner. These schools are deemed an essential service. These classes and schools provide much more than education and only time and retrospection will inform us of the full damage these closures have caused. There has already been compelling research on the damage caused to our children and particularly our special needs children.

One parent of a child with special educational needs has said that the child cannot cope with attending school for one day, followed by a long mid-term break and possible disruption in routine. Another parent is facing the issue of her child being totally confused and upset by the starting and stopping. Another parent has found her son very upset on his days off and feels that online learning is making him worse. A child with special needs has been put on medication to help with anxiety levels and behaviour because of the lockdowns and not being able to go to school. Since returning to school this year, his medication had to be increased as returning to school one day a week was completely out of his routine. Another parent is dealing with a child who is very settled on the days he is in school but very disruptive on days off. I have also heard from parents of children attending special needs classes in schools that are being asked to do a phased reopening. Has this been permitted in the guidance and is it up to each school to decide?

Issues are coming up for parents whose children are to return to school next week. One child will return to his autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit on Monday but only from 9 a.m. to 10.40 a.m., even though the child usually attends from 9 a.m. until 2.40 p.m. Many parents are being offered shorter days, which is not a full return to education. Are there guidelines or medical evidence that state this is best practice? It goes without saying that the situation is strained for parents, children and teachers. I understand and appreciate that.

Where do children with additional needs feature in the scheme of returning to education? What extra resources will be put in place for them when they return to school?

In summary, I want to know when special needs schools and classes will return to full capacity. I worry for many families, particularly children who have been out of school and society and have not been reaching their potential for a long time. They have not been comfortable in their own skins and abilities because of the school closures. Parents are tired, as the Minister of State knows well because she has been at the front line. I would like to give these families and children some answers.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for her question. My Department and I are very conscious of the fact that closing schools has hugely adverse consequences at individual, family and societal level and that the effect on children with special educational needs can be even greater, as we all know. It is my and the Minister, Deputy Foley's strong preference that all students would return to school at the earliest opportunity in March in line with public health advice.

Under the framework recently agreed with teacher unions and school management, an initial phased return of children in special schools and special classes is already under way, with children in special schools returning on a 50% basis, as the Senator spoke about, from 11 February and children in special classes in mainstream primary and post-primary schools making a full return from next Monday, 22 February.

Dialogue is continuing with education partners at primary and post-primary levels about a full reopening of schools. This has been informed by engagement with the Department of Health, whose analysis of the current disease levels has advised that a cautious phased approach should continue to be developed, which is what has happened thus far.The Department has reaffirmed its view that schools in and of themselves are low-risk environments. We also know this from NPHET's advice, from Dr. Abigail Collins and Dr. Kevin Kelleher and, indeed, from Dr. Philip Nolan, who has always maintained that schools are safe environments once they put in place their own infection control measures, which needs to be done. This approach will see schools reopening in line with public health advice and will ensure that all schools can reopen safely at the earliest opportunity in March.

We recognise that remote learning is particularly challenging for students with complex needs and because of this, the Department of Education has also put in place a supplementary programme to support the education and-or care needs of students with complex needs at primary and post primary level. This programme of in-person support is intended to supplement the teaching and learning provided by the student’s school and alleviate the impact of this period of school closure through the provision of five hours per week of in-person teaching or care support, to be delivered in homes for up to four weeks. There is support available. We recognise that it is not sufficient but it is something to try to help tackle this regression.

I am struck by what the Senator said about anxiety and behaviour, and the fact that some children have had to increase their medication, which is not what anybody wants. She spoke of families being at their wits' end and being devastated. I am equally devastated that we cannot do this. If I had a magic wand I would have all children back in school from today or tomorrow but that is simply not possible. We are dealing with many constituent parts within the education sector and we also have to take public health advice into account. Everybody is working towards this continued phased reopening. As I said, we have already had some success in the special schools, even if they are at 50% capacity. We hope to get them to 100% as soon as is practical and possible. It is important that all children get their education in-person and in a school environment because this situation is extremely difficult for everybody. The Senator can rest assured that I and the Government are determined to reopen schools for students once it is fully safe to do so and once we have the agreement of all our education partners.

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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I know that if the Minister of State could click her fingers we would have all our children back to school. Part of my thought process on this issue is about special classes. There is a very individual, school-level approach to the reduction of the hours being provided. What do parents do if they are told they are supposed to get their child back to full-time education when they are not getting that? One hour and 40 minutes, which is what they will have next week, is certainly not full time for special classes. I ask the Minister of State to work on that and see if there is a way to get around it. If there is a school issue can the school contact the Department to see what it should do? Is there extra help to make sure there are full classes back at school next week?

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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It is important to note that guidance has gone out to all schools on how they should be catering for children with special educational needs. Some of the requirements set out are: regular engagement with pupils and students; a blend of guided and independent learning tasks; appropriate and engaging learning opportunities; and two-way feedback between home and school. There are supports in place, as well as supports from the National Council For Special Education. It is clearly a relationship between all parties. It is up to the schools to decide how they administer the 50% capacity. We cannot be too prescriptive and schools and their principals, teachers and SNAs know best how they can work out a 50% phased approach. We ask for fairness in that regard. The guidance is set out very clearly until we can get back to 100% reopening and, indeed, until we get special educational needs classes in mainstream, regular education back, which we intend to do as soon as possible.