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Coronavirus: NI Special Schools ‘Worried’ Over Guidance

March 13, 2020

Advice about how the coronavirus could affect pupils with complex needs has not been good enough, a Stormont committee has heard.

Principals said they were “very worried” about the impact but had received insufficient guidance.

An Education Authority (EA) official said they had raised the issue with the Public Health Agency (PHA).

Three special school heads were giving evidence to MLAs on Stormont’s education committee on Wednesday.

In response to a question from SDLP MLA Justin McNulty, Kim Scott, from the EA, said that the authority was “doing everything we can at the moment”.

“So up to this point the guidance that’s been issued to headmasters and principals has been look at the PHA website?” Mr McNulty replied.

“That has been what the PHA has advised the Department of Education to do,” Ms Scott said.

However, the principal of Sperrinview Special School in Dungannon, Paula Jordan, said guidance on coronavirus had been insufficient.

“Not with the complex medical needs of our children, as some of our children are life-limiting,” she continued.

“All of our principals are very worried about what’s going to happen.”

Ms Jordan claimed, for example, that one school had received conflicting advice about whether a staff member who had been in contact with someone with the virus should come to work.

“It should not be a principal’s call, this is a medical issue,” she said.

Classes in sheds

Sharon Tennant, principal of Sandelford Special School, expressed similar concerns.

“We have very complex children with very complex health needs, children with oxygen, children with heart and lung problems, life-limited children,” she said.

“We need really clear guidance on what to do.”

The principals also said that some special schools were holding classes in sheds and staffrooms due to increasing numbers of pupils.

The number of children in Northern Ireland’s 40 special schools has increased by almost 40% over the past decade.

There are currently 40 special schools in Northern Ireland with 6,174 pupils, an increase from 4,443 pupils in 2009-10.

Ms Jordan said some of her pupils were currently being taught in a former medical room.

“We have a class in our PE hall, which means I no longer have a PE hall so we can’t provide statutory PE at this time of year,” she said.

“We have a class in our staff room. which means that our staff are now having their tea in a corridor outside a toilet.

“We have a class in a medical room, other schools have classes in potting sheds.”

More schools needed?

In response, SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said children with special educational needs (SEN) had been “absolutely failed”.

“The children of today have been treated, or have ended up, as the collateral damage for the systemic failure of EA and the department in relation to their complex needs,” he said.

Sinn Féin MLA Karen Mullan said it was “scandalous” that some pupils were being left without PE facilities.

Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said there was a “major problem”.

“Is the education authority or education system enrolling more pupils than our special schools can effectively accommodate?” he asked.

In response, Ms Jordan said more special schools were “probably” needed.

The EA had previously apologised for widespread failings in providing support for pupils with special educational needs.

DUP MLA William Humphrey asked Kim Scott what was being done by the EA to address those shortcomings.

In response, Ms Scott said that the authority had an action plan to address problems identified by its own investigation.

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