Special schools will reopen on Thursday 11 February and classes in mainstream schools for pupils with special needs will resume on Monday 22 February.

The agreement was reached this evening by the Department of Education with the Fórsa and INTO trade unions, who represent special needs assistants (SNAs).

In a statement, the INTO and Fórsa said the resumption will commence with the partial reopening of special schools, where there may be a maximum of 50% of pupils attending on alternate days.

The INTO said clear advice had now been provided by public health authorities that the limited and partial reopening, along the terms agreed with the unions, will not give rise to an increase in school-based or community transmission.

It said: "Following the significant decrease in the 14-day average of infection rates since mid-January and the much lower reproduction rate of the virus, NPHET further project that the public health landscape is expected to continue improving and will have improved considerably at the commencement of this interim plan."

Detailed plans, which the INTO and Fórsa say they have scrutinised, will be circulated to schools tomorrow.

They will include detailed information on the steps that need to be taken for the planned resumption of in-school support for pupils with special educational needs.

The INTO said: "We have jointly insisted that boards of management must be given adequate notice, guidance and time to plan for this phased reopening and to liaise with parents of children with special educational needs.

"Ahead of detailed guidance being issued tomorrow, the INTO can this evening confirm that, following engagement with the Department of Education, we have secured a suite of necessary additional supports for special education facilities.

"While the INTO will continue to engage with the Department of Education on the limited reopening of special education provision, planning will also get under way for the wider reopening of our schools."

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Minister for Education Norma Foley said: "I am pleased that we are now in a position to give certainty to children with special education needs and their families on when they can return to school.

"Learning remotely is particularly hard for these children and I am acutely conscious that the loss of the regular school routine, social interaction with friends, direct face to face access to teachers and special needs assistants as well as therapy interventions have presented a huge challenge and a real risk of regression to the learning, social, emotional development and well-being of these pupils.

"It is hugely positive we now have a concrete plan in place to support these children to return to in-person schooling, in line with public health advice."

Fórsa's head of education, Andy Pike, said the union had set out to explore realistic measures to improve safety provision and re-build confidence in the safety of schools.

"SNAs and others working with students with additional needs are more aware than most of the urgent need to begin the resumption of services.

"We have always thought this could, and should, be done in ways that underpin the safety of students, staff and the entire school community.

"We have achieved a solid path towards the resumption of these vital services in the shortest possible time frame compatible with the safety of students and staff," he said.

Meanwhile, the chairperson of the parents' association at one of the schools due to reopen on 11 February says a partial return to education will cause difficulties for many children and their families.

Angelina Hynes' daughter Zoe attends Rosedale School in the Renmore area of Galway.

Tonight, she said that part-time education was not enough for those with severe or profound learning difficulties.

Ms Hynes said this would mean only a couple of days teaching would take place before the mid-term break and she contended that this would confuse many children, who need the routine and security of regular classes.

She pointed out that for children attending Rosedale, school is "their lifeline, their social outlet ... it is everything to them".

Instead of 50% service, they needed 100% attention from the State, she added.

Decision on Leaving Certificate expected

A proposal to hold the Leaving Certificate much later in the summer was discussed by the Cabinet Education Sub-Committee today.

However, it is thought such a plan is unlikely to gain widespread support.

Instead, there is a view among several ministers across the Government that students should be offered two options.

They are the chance to sit a full written exam or students could have some of their subjects calculated by predictive grades and they would sit written exams for the remaining subjects.

It is understood there was very little detail about the exact working of the plan or how grades would be calculated presented at the meeting.

A final decision on the Leaving Certificate is now expected to be made later this week or possibly at next week's Cabinet meeting.

A Government spokesperson said more time is needed to ensure the stakeholders in education are comfortable with the plan.

Minister Foley said she was looking to make a full announcement giving clarity on the exams in as short a time frame as possible.

Speaking on RTÉ's Six One News, she said there had been intense discussion with the advisory committee since November. She said there would be further engagement later this week.


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Teaching unions opt for 'adapted' Leaving Cert exams

The Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) earlier reiterated its support for holding the 2021 Leaving Certificate exams.

In a statement, the union said it does not believe that a system of calculated grades or similar will reduce stress and anxiety in the school community.

ASTI General Secretary Kieran Christie said the union had been "consistent in our message" that the preferred option for the Leaving Certificate is that it goes ahead, insofar as is possible.

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Mr Christie said that once you "stray away" from traditional exams, it "becomes very tricky indeed".

He said he is not convinced that last year's calculated grades process could operate properly this year, nor is he is not convinced that it would reduce stress and anxiety within in the school community.

Staff in NI special schools prioritised for vaccine

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, staff in special schools who are supporting children with complex healthcare needs are set to be prioritised for the Covid-19 vaccine, it has been confirmed.

It comes following an agreement between the departments of health and education.

Health Minister Robin Swann said: "Staff working in special schools are supporting children and young people who have the most complex healthcare needs and require support from across the health and education sectors.

"It is with this in mind that we have made the decision to offer the vaccine to those staff involved in the direct care of these children and young people.

"While we know that children are not at increased risk these are some of the most vulnerable young people in our society and by vaccinating the special school staff, we are protecting those children who may be at higher risk if exposed to Covid-19."

Eligible staff are those who undertake regular healthcare duties with multiple children and young people.

It means they work in close proximity for prolonged periods of time providing a range of interventions, including personal and intimate care and invasive procedures.

It is not yet clear when they will be vaccinated.

Additional reporting Sandra Hurley, Tommy Meskill. PA