Minister for Education Minister Norma Foley will meet representatives of special needs organisations on Monday following the decision not to reopen schools next week.

Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and the autism charity AsIAm have welcomed the meeting.

The three groups say they look forward to engaging with the minister and bringing the concerns of parents and the families of children with special educational needs to her.

The organisations had written to Ms Foley asking to be included in consultations with key stakeholders on school closures. The minister met unions today.

Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and the Autism Charity AslAm called for home tuition to be made available to every student enrolled in special classes and schools.

In the joint letter, the three groups note with "severe disappointment" yesterday's announcement that the planned reopening of special schools and special classes for children with special educational needs will now not take place.

They said the announcement has left families and children with special educational needs reeling.

The groups said it is vital that children with a disability are represented and included at a meeting because the issues now fall under the remit of Ms Foley's department.

The organisations have sought assurances that teachers will provide one-to-one support remotely, that communication to schools will be clear and consistent and that the expert agencies of the Department of Education will be available to advise parents and support young people in the days ahead.

The letter concludes that the lack of communication to date has caused huge distress to families and children and the three organisations sought an urgent meeting to bridge the gap.

Family Carers Ireland has written to Ms Foley to request a seat at the table for any discussion regarding the decision to close special schools and classes for children with additional needs.

The charity, which represents 500,000 carers, said it "has been contacted by thousands of family carers who are extremely disappointed, angry and upset at this U-turn by Government".

It said that "remote learning" is not an option for many and parents are facing huge uncertainty having heard nothing from schools as to what will happen from Monday.

The group said that while it understands the Government faces a massive challenge in protecting the most vulnerable from Covid-19, it notes that Minister Foley stated that it remains her "strong belief that this period of time is crucial for the mental wellbeing of all children with special needs."

Family Carers Ireland said "urgent engagement" with those caring for children with additional needs is essential in the days ahead and a suite of solutions must be brought forward which includes in-school education, remote learning where practical and in-home supports where appropriate.

Barnardos, the Children's Rights Alliance, the ISPCC and the National Parents' Council Primary have also called on the Government to develop an "urgent plan" to reopen schools on 1 February.

They said this was needed given the "negative impact of school closures on children and young people" and they want the minister to "take action now to support vulnerable students".


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A number of parents of children with special needs contacted RTÉ's Liveline to voice their views about the closure of special schools and classes. 

Many describe how their children "regressed" during the last period of closures due to Covid-19. 

Niamh O'Donoghue said: "Our son just wails all day. He has nowhere to go. He is jumping on the trampoline and crying, all day long in the cold."  

She said the education of children with special needs included vital therapies. "You cannot educate a child with special needs over the internet," she said. 

"Remote learning does not work for these kids. There is no alternative." 

Another caller, Alice, said when her child is at school she is able to be his mum. "I thought I was going to be able to go back to being his mother, and not his therapist," she said. 

Breda Fitzgerald said her children "disintegrate" when they are not at school. 

"It's mind blowing to look at your kids disintegrate and lose the skills they've taught themselves," she said. 

Lynsey, mother of an 18-year-old with special needs, when she initially heard that special classes were continuing said: "For once I thought we were being heard."

Teresa said: "It's worse because they told us they were going to open. They gave us false hope. 

"They've made a liar of me to my child. He trusts me above anyone else, but now I have to try to explain to him that it's not happening now." 

Yesterday, Minister Foley confirmed "with regret" that all schools will remain closed to students from Monday, 11 January.

The Cabinet had initially agreed that Leaving Certificate students would be allowed to attend school three days a week and do remote learning on two other days and special needs education classes and schools were also set to resume in-person teaching.

Minister Foley said she was "very cognisant" of the impact the last lockdown had on children with special needs and their families, as well as on Leaving Certificate students.

AsIAm CEO Adam Harris said families are devastated that much needed support has been taken away.

He said that around 61% of children with autism lost key skills in areas such as communication, social interaction, self-regulation and personal care during the first school closures last year.

CEO of Inclusion Ireland Enda Egan said remote learning only works for about 30% to 40% of children with special needs and said it was incumbent on unions and the Department of Education to come up with solutions.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne, he said the problem should have been seen before now, given that there have been a number of waves during the pandemic.

Safety concerns had been raised by school leaders, parents, teachers, SNAs, and students over the decision to partially reopen schools as Covid-19 infections continued to rise.

Teachers' union ASTI had directed its members not to return to in-school teaching on Monday.

Meanwhile, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said the Government did consult with teachers in relation to abandoning plans for the Leaving Certificate and special needs education. 

He said meetings took place between the teaching body and the Department of Education on a "weekly basis".

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Mr Donohoe also said the public health advice is clear and that schools are safe.

Matthew Colgan, a Leaving Cert student at Wexford CBS, said he does not know what to make of the decision but will continue to study for his exams.

Speaking the same programme, he said he expects the Department of Education to make more changes to the Leaving Cert.

Eimear Neville, a student at Presentation Secondary School Clonmel, said the decision was sudden and leaves unanswered questions.

She said the mock exams are due to start on 2 February in her school and there are questions around that also.