Both the Ombudswoman and the Child Commissioner on Thursday slammed the government’s policy towards children with special needs as discriminatory given the requirements they need to fulfill to return to school.
Most schools reopened on Thursday following the lifting of restrictions but the parents of children with special needs, and those who go to special schools, were angered when told to avoid taking the children back to school at this stage, and say it was discriminatory that all children with special needs would need to be tested for Covid-19, among other unacceptable conditions.
Political parties also accused the ministry of a lack of organisation and discrimination towards the children.
Ombudswoman Maria Stylianou-Lottides weighed in later Thursday after receiving a complaint. In her report, she concluded that she needed to issue an intervention to the education ministry, calling the situation discriminatory towards children with special needs.
“Specifically, the announcement of the ministry of education regarding the attendance of children with disabilities during the reopening of schools, shows that students with special needs, under the current conditions to gain access to primary and secondary education, will have to follow different terms and procedures,” the report said.
The terms and conditions and preparation were such that it would mean the children losing two weeks of education.
The education ministry announced late on Wednesday the formation of a committee to examine individual cases of children with special needs. The committee, including specialised doctors, is expected to assess whether they should return to school and which measures must be implemented.
The announcement was referring to children in special units at state schools, or children who have serious health and adaptation issues, or who have a school assistant.
The ministry had required “enhanced protective measures” be taken before the children went to school, especially as regards those who are aided by school assistants. The children were also to be tested for Covid-19, which was deemed unfair given that not all children of standard development were required to undergo the testing.
According to Lottides, the complaint filed to her said the procedures as laid out would be impossible to follow, with the result that children with special needs could not start school at the same time as other students. The complainant also pointed out that many children with special needs, due to hypersensitivity and intense sensory issues, cannot tolerate the Covid 19 test or any other laboratory test, especially those who fall into the autism spectrum, who need to be prepared to go through any process, transition or treatment.
“The risk of wasted time is in itself a discriminatory treatment of children,” Lottides said
Furthermore, her report said that if the establishment of a committee was necessary it should have been set up long before the decision and the announcement of the reopening of schools so as to provide the opportunity for timely preparation without the risk of absenteeism.
Less favourable treatment of children with special needs was discriminatory, and imposing additional conditions on them were not justified on the basis of scientific opinion, Lottides said, adding that the conditions being imposed makes early access to classes almost impossible.
“I will agree with the opinion of the complaining parents that children with special needs are considered to be children belonging to vulnerable groups in an arbitrary manner,” she added.
“It is clear that there is discriminatory treatment… not only because support measures were not taken in time for children with disabilities to be already in school, but also because these children were treated less favourably…”
Lottides said her recommendation was that the education ministry’s announcement and the requirements for the attendance of children with special needs “be reconsidered immediately”. The report was submitted to the minister of education.
Earlier in the day, Child Commissioner, Despo Michaelidou had taken the same line. “The announcement essentially requires children with disabilities to undergo complex and time-consuming procedures and examinations, as well as the mandatory laboratory testing for Covid19,” she said.
Michaelidou said the conditions deprive the children of their right to education and on top of that they had only been published a few hours before the opening of schools.
The affected children are in a very bad psychological state, since they feel marginalised and unwanted, the commissioner said.
Akel MP Nikos Kettiras brought up the subject during the education committee on Thursday, saying the parents of those children are unable to return to work.