Yesterday, the Government announced its commitment to a return to school for children in special schools and primary school special classes, as well as some students with additional needs who attend mainstream classes, from 21 January. It’s a decision we welcome.
As you may be aware, we have had ongoing engagement with the Department of Education over the last two weeks to ensure that the needs of students with Down syndrome are not forgotten in the latest lockdown. Students with Down syndrome are a diverse group. We are well aware that one size will not fit all. Many are relatively fit and well, while others may have significant additional risk factors. We have been campaigning for families to be given meaningful options.
We collaborated with As I Am, Inclusion Ireland, and most recently, Family Carers Ireland, to lobby for alternatives for students with additional needs who may not be able to benefit from online educational provision. We are acutely aware that online schooling may not be practical for every student with Down syndrome, but also that attending school in person may not be the best option for all students.
Speaking yesterday, the Minister for Education Norma Foley said: “We all know the difficulties faced by students with special educational needs during periods of school closures. Schools provide vital support and structure. Distance learning and a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for every student. Previous closures saw students regress and lose vital skills. No one is in any doubt of the needs of these students to access learning provision in-person and I am pleased that we are working in partnership to address issues arising and to provide schools with flexibility to support children within an agreed framework for return.”
We are grateful to Ministers Norma Foley, Josepha Madigan and Anne Rabbitte for their ongoing engagement on this issue, and to the unions representing school staff for working hard to find a resolution in the best interests of vulnerable children and their carers.
Following the lockdown in March 2020, we surveyed members about returning to education. Parent’s views were also sought in a joint survey together with members of As I Am and Inclusion Ireland in November where similar concerns were raised. The responses clearly communicated the challenges families face balancing educational needs and medical vulnerabilities when making decisions. Families were concerned about their child’s ability to stay safe and maintain social distance, and worried about whether their child would become extremely sick if they contracted Covid-19 while attending school. They were also worried about the lack of structure and educational input causing anxiety, distress and regression. These worries are likely to be amplified by further school closures and rising case numbers.
Reduction of Branch Activities
As the country deals with unprecedented numbers of cases, everyone has to make difficult decisions and support the current level 5 restrictions by reducing our contacts and staying at home. Reducing our activities at branch level helps to reduce the number of people moving around and meeting. By reducing activities, hopefully leading to a reduction in the number of Covid cases, we will help make it safer for students to attend school in person. We continue to review this decision on a daily basis.
Our Current Goal
Our goal, as we advocate and campaign for appropriate education options is to ensure that students with Down syndrome are not forgotten, and that meaningful ways to keep them engaged in their education are put in place.
Options, which must be available to all families, should include in-person attendance at school; appropriate online teaching; or home tuition, with parents deciding on the best option for their child. Any concerns parents have about their child’s medical vulnerability should be addressed with their G.P. prior to making any decision about their child returning to school in person.
As an organisation, we are very aware of the efforts made by so many of our frontline workers who continue to keep essential services operational. The concerns of teachers and SNAs, who may themselves be vulnerable or have vulnerable family members at home must be addressed in the current climate of uncertainty. We fully support their calls for anything which helps them to return to as safe a working environment as possible, which is the responsibility of the Minister for Education and her Department.
Children are entitled to an education for the full school year and this must be provided for our most vulnerable students without any further delay, so that they can return safely to school or be provided with a meaningful alternative that best meets their individual needs.
What happens now?
We await the further details on issues like capacity, hours and clear timelines and look forward to further engagement with Government to clarify these.
We need the focus to shift now to getting secondary students with SEN back to school, and to ensuring students with SEN who can’t attend in-school services due to medical issues are catered for and supported at home.
We are in ongoing discussions with the Government to address these as well as the concerns parents have voiced to us over the past two weeks. We will keep you updated on our progress.
Please get in touch!
Our driving concern is and must continue to be the wellbeing in the fullest sense of the children who rely on specialist provision to receive their education and to progress.
We are here to support you and to answer any questions or queries you have on the safe reopening of schools for your child. Do you have any concerns you would like us to raise on your behalf?
Please email us with your details to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, we continue to support people with Down syndrome and their families throughout Ireland. If you require any information or support, please contact us on 01 563 2450, email@example.com or visit www.downsyndrome.ie.