Plans for phased return to schools for children with special needs welcomed 

Plans for phased return to schools for children with special needs welcomed 

Karen O'Mahony of The Rainbow Club for Children with Autism at Mahon Community Centre. Pic: Larry Cummins,

THE CEO of The Rainbow Club Cork Centre for Autism has welcomed the plans to commence a phased return to school for children with special needs.

Minister for Education, Norma Foley and Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion, Josepha Madigan yesterday announced plans for a phased return for children in special schools and a return to school for those in special classes in primary schools and those in mainstream primary classes with additional needs.

The announcement was made following a meeting with primary and special education stakeholders where all parties decided to move towards the phased return, which would begin from January 21.

CEO of the Rainbow Club and mother to two boys who have ASD, Karen O’Mahony said she welcomes the plans but remains “a little bit pessimistic”.

“We’re optimistic but still a little bit pessimistic that something is going to get changed last minute. I suppose people are not going to get their hopes up really until it is actually happening,” she said.

Ms O’Mahony has previously highlighted the importance of school for children with special needs and committed to continue some services at the Rainbow Club for families during the closure.

Like many children with ASD, her sons have struggled to adapt to the changes that have come with a level 5 lockdown and homeschooling.

“Lots of families would find homeschooling very hard,” said Ms O’Mahony.

“They are used to the environment that they are in so for them to work in their front room in their classroom, it doesn’t make sense to them because it’s school-work, they do that in school every day,” she said.

“School is school and home is home.”

In addition, the return of the “bubble of support” that is provided with schools and services would be welcomed by parents.

“With our children in special schools and special classes, it isn’t just about the education it’s about the whole bubble of support that’s in there, the movement breaks, the stuff that occupational therapists would recommend, speech and language would recommend, and all of this other stuff that is part of your child’s diet — their education, their sensory diet in their day at school,” said Ms O’Mahony.

Ms O’ Mahony, who founded the Rainbow Club with her husband in 2015, described regression as the biggest fear for many parents of children with special needs.

“It’s not just the educational side and I think people need to understand that it’s the intervention part that parents are panicking about, the regression of how far their child could fall behind.

“When a child doesn’t have that intervention, lots of difficulties can start happening, you have children that won’t sleep, they won’t eat.”

Some of these concerns about the impact the closure can have on children were outlined by Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan when announcing the plans to return.

“We all know the difficulties faced by students with special educational needs during periods of school closures,” she said.

“Schools provide vital support and structure. Distance learning and a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for every student. Previous closures saw students regress and lose vital skills.

“No one is in any doubt of the needs of these students to access learning provision in-person and I am pleased that we are working in partnership to address issues arising and to provide schools with flexibility to support children within an agreed framework for return,” she said.

According to Ms O’Mahony, the ability to return to in-person tuition would be of huge benefit to many parents who may have been struggling during the closure and the “difficult transition” for children to learn from home.

However, she has outlined the importance of sticking to the decision if pupils do return.

“This ping-ponging up and down constantly is not healthy for them and it’s not healthy for parents, it’s causing massive fallout and then you can’t get them back into a routine,” she said.

“If we are back in, they are back in and there are not worries around that, and there is something solid in place that would keep them in there and not allow that trauma and devastation to happen again.”

While Karen and her husband, Jon O’Mahony have had plenty of experience in navigating the needs of children with ASD, she admits it can still be difficult.

  • For more info on the Rainbow Club Cork Centre for Autism,

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