The fiasco that was the proposed re-opening of Irish schools for students experiencing additional needs ended again this week with students being left high and dry by the Irish government. Instead, the government choose to vilify teachers and SNAs refusing to make the virus the target of their arguments, teachers and SNAs and school representatives became public enemy number one.

Announcements were made by the government despite still being in discussions with the various unions, again leaving these poor children reeling. Children who needed certainty and an idea of how their immediate futures would play out. Deals had not been brokered, yet the public were being misled otherwise. If the minister for education had waited until negotiations were over and not attempted to coerce teachers and SNAs into a situation in which they felt unsafe there would not have been so much public uproar. Why exactly is it that teachers and SNAs do not trust public health advice? To understand exactly why Forsa and the Unions are reasonably afraid and dubious of the Government’s constant reassurances that schools are safe places we must first take a look at where it all started.

Close Contacts dispute

In October, a circular was sent around to schools inferring that the definition of a close contact for teachers was different to every professional. Any other professional setting wherein a person was fifteen minutes in contact with a confirmed case, that person would be deemed a close contact and would have had to self-isolate.

It was this moment in which teachers and SNAs knew that they were not valued by this government. After several talks, the government finally agreed to provide clarification of the definition. Teachers and SNAs were also asked to pause their Covid Tracing App, whilst in school with the government citing that a committee would be set up to deal with the teachers specifically.  

Ventilation issues

The suggestions for ventilating rooms according to the ‘Practical Steps for the Deployment of Good Ventilation in Schools Guide,’ was simply to ‘open doors and windows,’ thus providing ‘natural ventilation, weather permitting.’ The document also goes on to state how boilers should be regulated to provide optimum heat. However, to fit thermostats that would assist in regulating the heat and adequately counteract the negative offset of the freezing cold caused by the partially open windows would require more money than schools could afford.

During a pandemic, in which the government gave themselves a massive pay rise, the incoming health sectary for instance receiving a massive 80,0000 pay increase, they decided to leave ventilation up to the weather! The reality of these measures was that a lot of schools remained cold during the winter months and the students, teachers and SNAs suffered as a consequence of the government’s failure to provide schools access to thermostats. Learning however continued and teachers and SNAs and management continued to trudge on.

Lockdown 2021

Finally, we arrive at lockdown 2021. Two new highly transmissible strains of the virus an arguably new and worrying development arrive in Ireland. On the same day that it was announced that Ireland had the highest rate of new infections in the world per million, arguments were still being made over a lack of in-school support.

Not once were the people who really mattered considered by Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or the Greens and that is the children who were experiencing additional needs. If anything, this disaster is evidence of how much the education system of Ireland had been providing support where the HSE had failed to. At no point in these interviews or media press statements were Occupational Therapists, Physiotherapists or speech and language therapists asked to reopen.

One of the four charities’ advocating for the reopening of schools for children with additional needs, ‘Down Syndrome Ireland,’ came out to criticize teachers and SNAs and then the next day promptly moved all of their services online. How is it appropriate to ask schools to reopen, when even Down Syndrome Ireland have decided it is unsafe to attend in-person services?

The Minister for special needs and inclusion went on to describe the way the unions were treating children with additional as ‘similar to that of the mother and baby homes,’ further vilifying the unions. It is essential that somehow going forward that children with essential needs are provided for. Whether that means the government provides extra support in terms full PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) gear and swabbing teachers and SNAs then so be it. At the end of the day, it is the students with additional needs who matter the most in all of this.

Grace Hartnett – Politics Correspondent