The role of Special Needs Assistants have been thrust into the spotlight by Covid-19. Darren Roche gives a firsthand account of a ‘year of fear’ in which the pressure to reopen schools took precedence over health and safety.
The previous twelve months of the pandemic have been a traumatizing and difficult time for all. As an Special Needs Assistant (SNA) for the last 13 years, it has certainly been one of the toughest periods I can remember.
From the moment COVID-19 became a reality in Ireland SNAs have seen their role highlighted and discussed in the media like never before, and not always in a good light.
Coming up to Easter 2020, I remember getting ready to finish up the break and a lot of the chat in school was whether we would be coming back; the pandemic really started to take a hold in Ireland at this time. The consensus among staff was that we could not see schools being closed and that we would be back in our normal capacity after the holidays. How wrong we were!
Little did we know that the next year would be filled with anxiety and fear, with the government or the department giving little thought to our mental health or wellbeing.
While on Easter holidays, rumours began to drift down the grapevine that SNAs were to be redeployed, as schools would not be reopening for the foreseeable future. We soon discovered that the plan was to redeploy SNAs to the HSE, who were understaffed and under-resourced for a pandemic of this nature.
There was no real communication from the Department of Education and Skills (DEAS) on this redeployment, just the usual rumours and leaks online. These online leaks were to become a feature of the DEAS and their communication strategy during the pandemic. What also became a feature was their complete lack of engagement with our trade union, Fórsa, or other stakeholders in education.
We heard stories of potential redeployment to the frontline, to work in nursing homes and other such places due to our experience of intimate care needs. Our fear now became a reality. We are not medically trained, and the thought that we would be working in an environment where COVID19 was prevalent terrified us. Thankfully, our union stepped in and put an end to this plan.
Next, we were to be retrained as contract tracers. Vetting forms were sent to our emails which were completed and returned. Statements were made about how we might not be able to work from home but rather be expected to attend locations and provide contract tracing duties from there.
While this was happening, the vulnerable children in our care were not being provided with remote learning or supports from their SNAs, under the instruction of their schools, as everybody held their breath and waited to see what would happen next. Eventually the contract tracing idea just seemed to die out; no official communication, we just stopped receiving the emails.
We soon discovered that this was due to the fact the government and the DEAS were determined that schools would be reopening. There was a real concern among SNAs that this was not safe to do. We all have families, some have vulnerable or high-risk family members, others were high risk themselves and some have infant children on whom the effect of COVID19 was unknown.
We were ridiculed online for expressing these concerns. The SNA-bashing just seemed to intensify.
The government did a great job of polarising parents and education staff, setting them against one another to deflect from their own incompetence and lack of a coherent plan.
SNAs, who have continually advocated for the children in their care and for the resources required for them to achieve their full potential, were now being accused of not caring or of being self-serving and selfish. The hurt caused by these statements was real. For far too long SNAs had made up for the shortfall in services by the DEAS who were now only too happy to throw them under the bus to save their own skin. That has not been forgotten.
But being the good little worker bees we are, we did return to school. We were supposed to find comfort in the new mitigation measures the DEAS had promised. These measures included providing us with masks, visors, disposable aprons for intimate care needs, hand sanitizer and advised to keep windows open. Schools were also provided with a budget so they could be extensively cleaned and sanitized at the end of each day. That is all.
In my school, which is an environment where students cannot socially distance, many cannot engage in proper hand hygiene, and many have intimate care needs, we were now expected to feel safe. We did not.
There was the constant fear of bringing the virus into your home and infecting a family member, child, or baby. There was the constant fear of bringing the virus into school and infecting a vulnerable student. But on we ploughed. Until the next crises.
The government, caving into business lobbyists, opened society too early to provide a Christmas windfall for retailers and businesses. Unsurprisingly COVID19 cases soared, and we were back in lockdown before you knew it.
Schools would no longer be reopened after Christmas and were forced to close for a prolonged period, providing remote learning and supports for their students. Understandably this did not suit all students, particularly those with special or additional educational needs, so the SNA- and teacher-bashing began again in earnest.
It is worth noting that my job, as a special needs assistant, is a lot easier while onsite. I now had to trawl the internet for hours looking for suitable resources, compile videos for life skill tasks, put together a plan that could be implemented at home and try engaging with students on Zoom calls. All these tasks are a lot easier to achieve in school when you have the resources and the support of colleagues on hand. If anything, our working hours increased.
The role of remote teaching /providing supports from home was also not understood by some sections of the public. We were accused of doing nothing and being paid for it, of being on extended holiday and of course, of not caring for our students. Unions were also lambasted for daring to care about the safety of their members. A lot of my colleagues were, at this point, struggling with their mental health and were exhausted from the strain of constant abuse directed towards them.
At no point did the government or the DEAS support them, highlight the great work they were doing from home, or defend them from the undeserved criticism. They just continued with their mantra that schools were safe, backed up by data compiled before cases had increased and when schools were off. It was data which did not consider the new variants which were prevalent or environmental factors such as overcrowded classrooms and the ability to socially distance.
The unions, now under enormous pressure from the government and parents, negotiated a Return to School Plan. This included protections for vulnerable staff members, a phased reopening of schools, a promise we would be in the top 30% to be vaccinated and an instruction to provide staff with improved surgical/N95 masks. Oh, and let us not forget, keeping those windows open!
Unsurprisingly, with schools back, case numbers began to rise again. The fear and anxiety amongst staff and SNAs increased with the realisation that it was luck and not a coherent plan that was keeping us safe.
But on we ploughed, until Easter 2021.
With Easter came the news that, due to their own sheer incompetence, the vaccine rollout strategy would be changed. Rather than being done by profession it would now be done by age. Our security blanket had now been taken away. We would no longer be in the top 30% to be vaccinated. The government had reneged on its promise. Unsurprising but devastating. The data used to justify their decision was collected in the summer of 2020, while schools were off, and still does not take into consideration new variants or environmental factors.
We have Ministers telling us that an special needs assistant is as likely to catch COVID as somebody working from home. You may have to read that sentence again, due to its absurdity. The DEAS have gaslighted the education sector, and the whole of society, by refusing to admit the real risk that exists in schools. They are playing a dangerous game. The ball is now back in the court of the unions and the scapegoating of SNAs/teachers has already restarted.
Meanwhile we sit and wait, with the same anxiety and fear we have had for a year now prevalent in our lives.
Darren Roche is a Special Needs Assistant and Co-Founder of @SNAAGIre.