COVID caution: IEU stands firm on safety

Our members have been working tirelessly throughout this pandemic to ensure minimal disruption to education as well as the safety of their students – employers must now work equally hard.

The IEU has appeared frequently in the mainstream media upholding our members’ safety on the pandemic’s frontlines. Online Journalist Angus Hoy covers the key issues.

The IEU is constantly monitoring the situation in non government schools across NSW and the ACT to ensure the safety of our members and your communities. We seek continual review of COVID-safe protocols to ensure the greatest levels of safety possible in schools. This is crucial in the wake of serious and expanding outbreaks in schools around Sydney and Newcastle from the start of Term 3.

It is crucial that non government school employers adhere to COVID-safe practices in schools, particularly by curtailing extracurricular activities.

In a statement on 11 August, IEU Secretary Mark Northam made the union’s position clear.

“The IEU would find it unacceptable if any of our members were asked to expose themselves needlessly to additional risk by participating in extracurricular activities such as sporting trips, school excursions, retreats, or other such activities,” Northam said.

In the same statement, the union called on the NSW Government to provide “clear and decisive guidance to schools”. The IEU has repeatedly expressed concern that our members, and the young people in their charge, are being told there is something exceptional about passing through the school gates that means COVID-safe precautions being undertaken in the wider community need no longer apply.

Undue burdens

The union is aware of heightened anxiety among our members due to confused and contradictory messages.

Our members in NSW and the ACT are on the frontline of the pandemic response. Many report a feeling of decision fatigue. School staff have repeatedly needed to make judgement calls on health measures, in addition to regular professional decisions around the education of students and school functioning – all without clear guidelines from the government.

Workplace transmission requires a workplace response. Consistent, clear guidelines will help our members ensure schools are safe for students, teachers, support staff, school leadership, and wider school communities.

Government response

The NSW Government has responded to the union’s calls. Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant and Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on 17 August they had developed “new, strengthened guidance” on areas that represent increased risks of transmission in schools. They described it as a “reset for Term 3” that came into effect on 19 August.

Dr Chant has written to non government school employers asking them to comply with these measures, which are binding on their public school counterparts. The IEU expects non government school employers to adhere fully to these guidelines and fulfill their obligations to provide a safe working environment for our members.

Compliance is crucial

The onus now lies on non government school employers to ensure their practices conform with these measures.

“Our members have been working tirelessly throughout this pandemic to ensure minimal disruption to education as well as the safety of their students,” Northam said. “Employers must now work equally hard to ensure the safety of their workplaces is guaranteed.”

Masking up

The union has called for greater uptake of mask wearing within school and education settings. We have asked the NSW Government to make an explicit recommendation that staff and senior students (Years 11 and 12) wear face masks within school settings. This aligns with existing advice that recommends wearing a mask in circumstances where it is not possible to socially distance.

The NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, has instructed state school principals to allow teachers to wear masks if they wish. The IEU expects that any staff member in non government schools who wishes to take the same precaution will be free to do so.

Our members should feel empowered to wear a mask at school, including in the classroom, effective immediately. “You don’t need to ask, just wear a mask,” Northam said.

Strengthening your voice

If your workplace isn’t adhering to COVID-safe protocols, speak up and your union will support you. We encourage chapters to meet and discuss any concerns. Share your issues with us and we’ll seek a suitable workplace response.

“We’re all in this together, and responsive school communities will be safer school communities,” Northam said.

“Teachers and support staff know the circumstances particular to their schools, so their insights must be heard.”

Guidelines reset

This 'reset' clarifies permissible activities in NSW schools (correct at time of press).

Existing health advice for all schools stays in place and includes good hand hygiene, physical distancing for adults and banning non-essential school visitors.

Anyone who takes a COVID-19 test must not return to school until a negative test result has been reported.

Anyone with symptoms must take a COVID-19 test.

Interschool activities should be restricted to stay within a school’s own zone.

All activities that involve group singing, chanting or the use of woodwind instruments should cease.

Formals or dances should not be held.

Parents/carers and other non-essential visitors should not be allowed on school sites.

Years 11 and 12 students completing HSC subjects may continue to attend classes/activities relating to subjects only available on other campuses.

TAFE and other VET programs may continue.

Only providers who are essential to curriculum delivery should continue to provide services and programs.

Where possible, students will stay within their relevant cohort group (that is, class, year group, or stage) for all learning activities within their school in order to limit close contacts to that student cohort.

Resolution of IEU Council meeting, 15 August 2020 Council calls upon the NSW Government to make clear and definitive guidelines for independent schools outlining all activities that should not be carried out by teachers in this time of pandemic. Council reiterates to the government that the union must be part of discussions in regard to these activities in schools before sending out such information to the sector.