The Department of Education has confirmed to RTÉ News that it has abandoned plans to reopen schools for children with special educational needs from Thursday.
In a statement, the department said it was "regrettable that after unprecedented engagement with primary and special education stakeholders, a shared objective that would allow children with special educational needs return to in-school learning, could not be reached".
The statement follows a decision by the two unions involved, the INTO and Fórsa, not to support the Government plan.
Following meetings of their executives, the two unions said efforts to reassure school staff that it was safe for schools to open limited services to students had failed.
The department said its efforts had included consistent, frequent and ongoing engagement at ministerial and official level with education partners including teacher and SNA unions over the last two weeks.
It said the Minister for Education Norma Foley and her officials had listened closely to the issues raised and that in a webinar for frontline education staff Dr Ronan Glynn had reaffirmed clearly that schools with risk mitigation measures in place provide a safe environment for staff and students.
Referring to what many believe is damage caused to the relationship between disability organisations, Special education workers, families and others, Andy Pike of Fórsa said: "We are in a desperately sad situation where rushed efforts to prematurely reopen schools have pitched the special needs community against itself."
Both the Department of Education and the two unions have said they want to continue with further engagement with a view to reopening schools.
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The unions said further discussions could achieve improved safety measures.
INTO General Secretary John Boyle said: "We are calling on the Government to avoid a confrontational approach that forces a reopening on tens of thousands of fearful staff who want to follow public health advice.
"Instead, they should continue to work with us to ensure that schools are safe for students and staff."
Head of Education with the Fórsa trade union, Andy Pike, discusses the decision not to support plans for the return of special education on Thursday #RTEPT | @apike1 | @franmcnulty pic.twitter.com/fQOnRSF7qY— RTÉ Prime Time (@RTE_PrimeTime) January 19, 2021
Call for 'interests of vulnerable children to be prioritised'
Four leading advocacy organisations - AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland and Inclusion Ireland - said that children with special educational needs, and their families and carers have been "almost completely forgotten in the conversations between stakeholders over the partial re-opening of schools".
In a statement, the groups appealed for the "interests of vulnerable children to be prioritised, and for the Government and education stakeholders to re-engage to find agreement on a suite of education support options that includes the re-opening of schools for children with special educational needs".
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald described the Government's handling of the planned return to school for children with significant additional needs as a "shambles" and a "disgrace".
She said teachers, Special Needs Assistants and the children and young people that they care for "have suffered greatly" due to what she said looks like the "second time that an announcement to reopen these educational services is going to fall flat".
Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne, Ms McDonald said Minister Foley has not given "adequate assurances" to staff that they and their families will be safe as a result of a return to classes.
Mother describes reopening plans as a rollercoaster
Sarah Murphy, who has a 12-year-old son with Down syndrome, said the plans to reopen schools have been confusing and "a rollercoaster".
Also speaking on Today with Claire Byrne, Ms Murphy said her son Tom also has autism, an intellectual disability, and operates like a three-year-old.
She said returning to school for him is not just about learning, but for social and emotional reasons.
Tom has received great services and was in early intervention, she said, but regressed hugely during last year's school closures and his inability to express himself can result in him hitting other people.
She said his sleep has been hugely disrupted because his routine is gone.
Ms Murphy said that while many parents will choose not to send their children to school because they can work remotely, Tom is not one of those children.
Declan Smith, principal of Scoil Mhuire in Lismackin, Co Tipperary, said the situation is very draining for everyone involved.
He said discussions are needed around what "safe" actually means rather than just simply repeating that schools are safe environments and the Minister for Education needs to communicate with more people on the ground.
Mr Smith added that he does not believe the time is right for children to go back to school, given the high number of Covid-19 cases.
The principal of St Paul's in Finglas, in Dublin, has said he is currently running a mobile school from his vehicle.
David Carter said there was no set up for remote learning last year and many families that he would work with did not have the hardware or know how to set it up.
He said he and a family therapist would set the families up with a laptop and WiFi so that children could engage with remote learning.
Mr Carter said special skills is a large umbrella term that covers a myriad of school settings and all the stakeholders should have been engaged to try to find a solution rather than pitting one cohort against the another.