All primary school children who have significant additional needs will return to the classroom next Thursday under new arrangements agreed between the Department of Education and teacher and SNA trade unions.

The plans cover not just children attending special schools or dedicated classes in mainstream schools, but also children with special needs who are currently being taught in mainstream classes.

While students attending special schools will attend on alternate days in order to reduce the number of children in attendance at any one time, all others pupils will return to education five days a week.

In a letter sent out to schools this evening, the Department of Education also says the full reopening of schools is planned for 1 February.

The letter advises that all special education teachers, and teachers who do not teach mainstream classes, and all Special Needs Assistants should return to school on Thursday, unless they are on approved leave, or health related absence.

However, the trade union Fórsa, who represent Special Need Assistants, said: "Efforts to achieve a partial reopening of primary sector special schools and special classes were still underway."

In a statement, the union said that an agreement had not been reached on "enhanced safety measures that would facilitate the safe resumption of services at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic."

Fórsa added it was "working hard to speed the resumption of services to students with special educational needs, and to build confidence in the safety of classrooms among staff, students and parents".

The letter from the Department states that pupils with significant special educational needs who are usually in a mainstream classroom should be grouped into temporary special education groups.  

"In doing so," it states, "schools should also have regard to the requirement to comply with the public health guidelines for a safe school environment as set out in the School Covid-19 Response Plans, including the use of social distancing, respiratory and hand hygiene measures and creation of bubbles and pods as appropriate".

It says the new measures are temporary and interim and are designed to support schools until such time as schools fully reopen.

The new arrangements cover all special classes in primary schools, including early intervention special classes for children with autism or hearing impairment.

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The letter states that the provisions also apply to "pupils with the most significant additional needs in mainstream classes".

These will include pupils who may have conditions such as autism, Down Syndrome, or sensory impairments and other disabilities. 

It states that small schools, who may not have a full-time special education teacher, should work collaboratively with other schools to provide as much in-school provision as possible.  

Schools will also be allowed to reopen for other vulnerable pupils where capacity allows, the department says.

This may include children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  

"Schools can only do so where they are satisfied that they have provided appropriately for the children with significant additional needs but where there remains capacity to support other pupils, schools have the flexibility to consider vulnerable pupils".

Schools have been asked to ensure that risk mitigation measures introduced in September remain in place along with additional requirements such as the provision of medical grade masks to all SNAs and other school staff who are working within two metres of a pupil to whom they are delivering personal care or attention. 

Schools have been informed that additional details will be circulated next week in the form of Frequently Asked Questions. 

The plan thus far does not address a number of concerns of school workers, such as how childcare problems might be addressed for SNA's or teachers who themselves have primary school children at home and in need of care. 

Separately, Department officials also met with representatives of the Irish Second-Level Students Union to discuss plans for this year's Leaving Certificate.

The ISSU is currently conducting a survey of Leaving Certificate students with a view to ascertaining their views on how best to proceed, and will hold a webinar this weekend to help gather opinions. 

The Taoiseach said it was still the Government's preferred choice to have a sit-down Leaving Certificate in June. 

Speaking to Virgin Media News, Micheál Martin said that every option will be considered when it comes to the Leaving Certificate.