Talks aimed at securing the reopening of schools for children with additional needs will resume tomorrow between the Department of Education and the Fórsa and INTO trade unions. 

Talks collapsed last night after Fórsa and the Irish National Teachers' Organisation said they could not support plans to reopen schools tomorrow.

Earlier, the Dáil heard calls for the Taoiseach to intervene in an effort to reopen schools for children with significant additional needs after the Department of Education confirmed it had abandoned the plans.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the plan had fallen apart due to Government incompetence.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin defended the Government's approach and insisted it had acted in good faith and it was untrue to say there was no consultation with teachers and Special Needs Assistants.

Speaking during Leaders' Questions, he pledged that engagement with unions would continue and this would be led by Minister for Education Norma Foley.

Mr Martin added that "one of the most effective things to do" is to get the rate of community transmission down and such a development "might" give the Government the "ability to solve the problem".

Ms McDonald accused Minister Foley of scapegoating teachers and said this approach was fooling nobody. 

"All of this happened because the minister made a big promise and had not done the work to deliver it," she said.

Labour's education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin claimed Ms Foley and Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion Jospeha Madigan had lost control of the situation.

He said their comments on the issue had been deeply unhelpful and the Taoiseach needs to get involved. 

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Earlier, Minister Foley said it was "incredibly disingenuous" of INTO General Secretary John Boyle to suggest that his union did not instruct teachers not to go to work tomorrow.

She said both the INTO and Fórsa made it clear in the statements they issued that they were not happy to accept the public health advice issued to them and the measures offered to them.

These included measures on parental leave, increased subsidies for childcare, and pregnant teachers and SNAs being allowed to work from home on a temporary basis, she said.

Both the INTO and Fórsa said they remain available for further talks aimed at improving health and safety provision in schools to enable them to reopen safely.

The Department of Education has also said it is committed to further engagement on the issue.

Speaking on RTE's Morning Ireland, Minister Foley said she did not force the reopening of classes, because all sides had been working towards a shared objective and there was no guarantee that staff would turn up.

She said it is a matter of deep regret that the INTO and Fórsa were not happy to recognise the essential needs of children with additional needs and accept the expert public health advice offered to them, even though, she said, the INTO had said on RTÉ's Prime Time last week that unions would support a return to school, if public health advice supported the move.

Ms Foley said public health advice had stood the education sector well from September to December and when the Department of Education was asked to make changes and accommodations to ensure that schools were safe environments, it was done.

All that we have learned in previous lockdowns, she said, is that there is no student more vulnerable than those with additional needs and they suffered greatly during the last lockdown and regressed hugely. 

She said the department was looking for an accommodation for 18,000 students out of one million, adding that some classrooms have just six children attending.

Legitimate fears among teaching staff - INTO

Mr Boyle said the union did not instruct its members not to go to work tomorrow, and that the majority of members would have done so if instructed by Ms Foley.

He said it was disappointing that special educational classes were not resuming as planned, but there are "very, very legitimate fears, concerns and anxieties", among teaching staff.

Mr Boyle said that when teachers were told at Monday's webinar that schools were "threatened" with the current levels of infection in the community, it did not give them confidence.

He said children with special needs have lost up to 16-17 school days so far, but, he said, "there's the potential for 80-85 more school days".

"We will work tooth and nail with the department to ensure that schools reopen safely." 

Mr Boyle acknowledged that INTO members in Northern Ireland are back teaching, but said they have been given additional measures and protections. 

The INTO's Assistant Northern Secretary said the reason members are back teaching in Northern Ireland is because the Education Minister has mandated that the schools remain open.

Speaking on RTÉ's News At One, Mark McTaggart said the Department of Education had decided there were enough mitigating factors in place to allow them to.

He said they are trying to keep as many members out of schools and working safely from home, and that one problem they are having is that as the weeks go on, the number of children in the schools is increasing. 

Government 'left with no option'

Minister Madigan said she believes the unions have taken "an unreasonable stance" and "can't hear any justifiable reason for them not to open tomorrow".

"We have given all the resources, all the reassurances for a number of months now, and we have given out guidelines" and it is "heartbreaking to hear the torment, the torture that some of these families are going through".

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne, she said she believes teachers and SNAs are "essential workers, like gardaí, like supermarket staff, like frontline staff".

Ms Madigan said the Government had to make the decision for schools not to reopen tomorrow "because we were left with no option". 

She said the Minister for Education will "have to consider" whether the department will ask these workers "to come to work" regardless of the collective views of their unions.

The union members "asked for public health advice and they got public health advice very, very clearly in the webinar", adding that this "was the first time that the unions have ignored the public health advice".

Ms Madigan also apologised for referring to the experience of children in mother-and-baby homes when describing the situation of children with special and additional needs not being able to attend school.

She said: "It's completely and wholly unsatisfactory where we are now. We've spent the last week talking about mother-and-baby homes, where our most vulnerable were left to their own devices in less than satisfactory conditions and we are now allowing further anxiety and upset to be placed on the shoulders of parents whose children desperately need to go back to school."

She later sought to clarify the comments in the Dáil and issued a statement in which she said she "in no way intended offence towards anyone who works with children with special educational needs," adding: "I apologise fully".

This morning, Mr Ó Ríordáin said last night's lengthy statement from the Department of Education was unhelpful and apportioned blame, adding that the unions have signalled they are happy to continue in talks.

He said it needed to be noted that teachers and SNAs are being asked to step into the classroom during a time when, until recently, Ireland had the highest infection rates in the world, and so there was anxiety.

The department had no plan from the last lockdown in relation to special education, he said, adding that it is clear that the ministers are "not having hands on engagement" with the process.