Michael Staines
Michael Staines

12.21 13 Jan 2021


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Parents have hit out at the “absolutely disgraceful” treatment of children with special needs through the coronavirus pandemic.

It comes after the Government performed a last-minute U-turn on its decision to allow special needs education to continue while the majority of schools remain closed.

On Monday, the Education Minister Norma Foley told disability groups that the reopening of special schools would be prioritised in the coming weeks.

However, a Department of Education spokesperson said it is impossible to say when that might happen.

Regression

Newstalk reporter Barry Whyte talked to some of the families affected for The Pat Kenny Show this morning.

Lourda Doyle form Broadford in County Clare said her three boys all have autism, with two attending ASD class in the local national school and one attending ASD pre-school.

“My youngest boy had started to make strides with his speech before the last lockdown in March but he regressed over the summer and those words slowly slipped away from him over the period of the lockdown,” she said.

“This was due to him not getting the one-to-one attention that he gets from his ASD teacher and his speech and Language therapist.

“We noticed, since he went back to school in September, a slight improvement coming and a few words were starting to come back again but already, just three weeks in now to the school closure, I can see those words are starting to slip again.

“He is not using them as much as he was and I really can see them slip away. That is my biggest fear now. That the kids are going to regress again and it is impossible for them to make up that lost ground.

“For some kids regaining skills they lose can be virtually impossible for them to do.”


She said children with additional needs are the “most vulnerable people in society” and said special education should have been deemed an essential service from Day One.

“Schools across Europe are open,” she said. “In Northern Ireland they are open. We are the only country in Europe that does not have special needs schools open. It is absolutely disgraceful.

“I absolutely feel let down by this Government. The way they have treated children with special needs over the last ten months is absolutely disgraceful.

“This all started last March. The Department of Education has had ten months to get plan together in case this happened again - how do we deal with special needs kids? How do we ensure they are getting an education? How do we deal with the most vulnerable in society?

“Ten months later they have no plan in place. It just beggar’s belief to be honest.”

"Incredibly stressful"

Meanwhile, Dr Niamh O’Brien, a GP in County Galway, said it was “Incredibly stressful” trying to juggle work and her children’s special needs during the first lockdown

She said her six-year-old daughter Annie has severe non-verbal autism while her secondary school daughter Lucy has a rare and severe brittle bone disorder called Osteogenesis Imperfecta.

Many of our daughters’ therapies and supports were reduced or stopped.

“Without her daily routine of school, our youngest daughter Annie, her developmental progress, which already is markedly delayed due to her autism and communication issues, unfortunately, regressed greatly, resulting in retrograde steps with her therapies and her toileting plus significant challenging behaviours,” she said.

“Adding to that Lucy, who usually has a full-time SNA to support her physical needs during the day at school now had no SNA support at home, so supporting Lucy with keeping up with her schoolwork was another challenge for us.”

U-turn

Dr O’Brien said her daughters school was ready to open before the Government U-turn was announced.

“The last-minute bombshell last week that special schools were remaining closed along with all other schools was a devastating blow to families like ourselves,” she said.

“Many other special schools around the country were ready to open either fully or partially but the autonomy was taken away from the schools when this blanket decision was made.”

She said “whatever it takes needs to be done” to reopen special schools as soon as possible.

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