Special Needs Assistants in schools are to be reassigned temporarily to other duties in essential public services as part of the state's response to Covid-19.

Under plans announced by the Minister for Education Joe McHugh today, a process has been set up by the Public Appointments Service to put the country's 16,000 SNAs on standby to free up frontline workers for essential services.

They will be asked to take up roles in settings, such as community facilities for children with disabilities, so that healthcare staff such as nurses can transfer to frontline services.

The move is part of a wider temporary assignment programme that is opening up for public sector employees.

Trade union Fórsa, which represents SNAs, has said there was no question of them taking on nursing, medical or nursing assistant roles, for which it says they are wholly unqualified.

Under the centralised process, other SNAs will be asked to work remotely with the children they currently work with, and their families, to advise and support them in meeting children's needs at home.

It is unlikely that all 16,000 SNAs will be deployed, because their skills and experience will have to be matched with need within the system, and geographical and other factors will also have to be taken into account. They will not be asked to take on 'frontline' duties.

Announcing the move, Minister McHugh said that the priority in the education and training sector was to ensure that young people and students keep learning, despite the trying circumstances.

However, he went on to say that "having said that, some workers will now be able to put their skills and experience to further use".

In a statement issued this evening, Fórsa has accused Mr McHugh of misunderstanding his department's arrangements for the temporary reallocation of SNAs.

It said a circular issued to schools on the proposed reassignments did not suggest that SNAs or other unqualified staff would take on nursing or other medical roles. 

The union has accused the minister, in the media interviews he conducted today, of indicating that they would. 

The union has pointed to that fact that today's circular says any reassigned SNAs will be allocated to the HSE’s children’s disability services. 

The union said: "Most are expected to maintain contact with the student that they already assist – and their family – primarily through remote applications."

Speaking to RTÉ News about the reassignment plans, the minister said the aim was "to use the skillset and experience of SNAs to try and take the pressure off frontline staff". 

He cited the example of nurses who were currently looking after young people with disabilities.

However, Mr McHugh said the move was "at no time" and "in no way" about trying to put SNAs in roles that they were not comfortable with or qualified for.

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SNAs support children with a variety of physical special needs in class.

The minister said SNAs had much-needed skills and experience "which can be of huge benefit to other services and I believe will be of great support to the national effort".

He said the move was about giving some workers the opportunity to be on standby to help others in great need.

Any SNA who is reassigned will be able to return to their original job when schools reopen.

The Department of Education says that all public servants who are not medically advised to self-isolate must be available to carry out work either to deliver services within their own sector or for temporary assignment within the wider public service.

SNAs will be asked to access a web link over the coming week and answer a questionnaire.

The Public Services Appointments Service and the HSE will then attempt to match skills with local requirements.

The temporary assignments will be managed through the Department of Education and Skills and the Public Appointments Service.