St Francis School in Portlaoise. Photo: Conor Ganly
Special needs pupils will be returning first to Irish schools this Thursday February 11, but for the pupils of the biggest such school in Laois, it will again be back to an old poorly insulated building.
A multi-million new school has been in construction for St Francis Special School in Portlaoise for the past three years.
Funded by the Department of Education, the completion date on it has been pushed out several times. It was first promised to be ready in September 2018 as a Rapid Build project by the Department of Education.
Now the Chair of the Board of Management, Fr Paddy Byrne, has given what he hopes is the final date for pupils and staff of St Francis to enter the door of their new state of the art school.
"It is in the final stages now. The full building is almost complete. We are now tendering for furniture and equipment like interactive whiteboards.
"I am confident that we will receive the keys in the coming weeks. Then in the coming months the new school will open. My sense is that by May it will be open," he told the Leinster Express on Friday.
The school has almost 100 pupils aged 5 to 18, and also now has a new principal, John Moran.
The return to special needs education is welcomed by staff, parents and children Fr Byrne said.
"It has been a terribly challenging two months for their whole families. As an uncle of a niece with profound needs, they require 24 seven care, online teaching is not as effective. The school engages as best they can but many children can regress.
He notes that every ASD unit in Laois schools will also return to lessons next Thursday, with extra transport provided to ensure social distancing.
"Staff are also very happy to go back and to welcome the children back. I believe that young people have been fantastic. They have been the most restricted even though the illness does not affect them as seriously," he said.
He adds that all Covid procedures will be adhered to, and the old school is well maintained and kept warm.
The present St Francis School on the Timahoe road is a single story prefab style building (pictured below) with cramped conditions and poor insulation, with parents long campaigning for a replacement building for their children, many of whom have compromised immunity.
The new spacious building was delayed even before Covid forced work to stop 11 months ago in March 2020.
It is part of a €12.3 million contract awarded to MEIC along with Maynooth Educate Together NS in Kildare, which was prioritised after the first lockdown ended. The latest completion date for St Frances had been January 2021.
Work on the new school began with demolition of St Paul's parish school. The two-storey 12-classroom building includes staff and pupil facilities and ancillary spaces, with a floor area of 2912m3, a new entrance, 44 space carpark and safe play areas.