The Government has made the decision to postpone the phased return for children with special educational needs to in-school learning on Thursday.
Minister for Education Norma Foley and Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion Josepha Madigan confirmed that the reopening of the schools "will not be possible owing to a lack of co-operation by key staff unions in the primary sector".
It comes following a meeting between the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation's (INTO) Central Executive Committee (CEC), and the Fórsa Education Executive on Tuesday evening to determine how best to ensure the safety of everyone in the school community in returning to school.
Following the meeting, both unions called on the Government to postpone the resumption of school-based special education needs (SEN) services.
In a statement, Minister Foley said it is "hugely important to provide in-person learning to this vulnerable cohort of children" and that she regrets that that this has not been possible.
The needs of this group of students are such that no-one should be in any doubt of the importance of this goal, and its urgency. We all understand how vulnerable these children are, and how much they need to be in school.
“The concerns and fears of teachers and SNAs have been well articulated, and I, along with my officials have listened carefully at every stage of this process. I have full confidence in our public health advice which, at all times, has underpinned our approach to keeping schools safe.
"This means that we know that with the appropriate measures in place, we can support the re-opening of special schools, special classes and in-person learning for certain children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.
“Ireland is an outlier in the European Union in not having in-person provision available for students with special educational needs at this time. We have addressed the concerns raised in relation to safety, including making public health officials available to education partner representatives, and subsequently facilitating three of the most senior public health officials in the country to communicate directly with teachers and SNAs.
“This is the first time that unions have refused to accept the advice provided by public health specialists. We have provided guidance on how special schools can operate at 50 per cent capacity, to offer these students a return to learning, knowing that the vast majority of these students cannot engage in any way with remote learning.
“We have provided guidance and flexibility in relation to staff members who are at high risk of Covid-19, to ensure their safety. We have put in place flexibility for schools to manage this situation and return to in-person learning over the coming days, to organise and manage their staffing in this context.
“The INTO represents teachers both here and in Northern Ireland. Many schools in the North are currently providing in-person teaching to children with special educational needs. It is regrettable that similar cannot be achieved here.”
She said that the Government "will now need to consider how best to proceed in the interests of children and their families".
"The needs of our most vulnerable young people are at stake here, and I will continue to pursue every avenue to ensure that they can be restored to the in-person learning that they need as immediately as possible," she said.
Minister Madigan said she is "very disappointed that work to support students with special educational needs at this difficult time has not been able to proceed".
"Over the past year, we have all seen how vital in-person education is for students with special educational needs.
“This matter has been highlighted not only by the families of the students themselves, but also by all the partners in education and representative groups, in regular meetings with department officials. Everyone recognises that distance learning does not work for every child.
“Recent weeks have seen intense and regular engagement with partners to seek a solution to this, while providing necessary assurances to everyone in our education system.
If special educational setting can remain open as essential services in other jurisdictions, including in Northern Ireland, there is be no reason why it should not possible here.
Both Ministers' comments came mere hours after the INTO and Fórsa said that efforts to reassure school staff that it was safe for schools to open limited services to students with SEN had failed.
They urged the Government to postpone the resumption of school-based SEN services until further discussions can achieve improved safety measures including Covid-19 testing, leading to the resumption of all school services.
INTO President Mary Magner said staff were “genuinely anxious and fearful” about a premature return to schools when Covid-19 confirmed cases and hospitalisations remained so high and new strains of the virus were increasing the risk of transmission.
“Nobody wants to delay services for children with special educational needs from reopening, but most teachers simply don’t believe it’s safe for themselves, their pupils or their families,” she said.
General secretary John Boyle said the “fundamental problem was conflicting health messaging, which had left many school staff totally unconvinced that the school environment was safe under current conditions”.
He said that an education department webinar held on Monday attracted over 16,000 participants and “clearly demonstrated the level of fear and anxiety among school staff”.
Fórsa’s head of education, Andy Pike said: “The Government hasn’t won the support of special education stakeholders. I’m sure this was not the intention, but we are in a desperately sad situation where rushed efforts to prematurely reopen schools have pitched the special needs community against itself.
SNAs themselves are disability advocates. They know that SEN students need support, not least because so many enter the profession because they themselves have a child or family member with special needs.
“It would be for the best if all parties would focus on a general reopening of schools as soon as possible, once there is an established downward trajectory in the number of Covid-19 cases and fresh public health advice that it is safe to do so,” he said.
The unions said parents of children with special educational needs held differing views about the resumption of school services, and that there was also uncertainty about the attitude of individual school boards of management.
Both unions will meet again on Wednesday to decide the best way to provide maximum support to members to ensure their health and safety.