Vaccine priority: Fighting for our lives

The IEU has been calling for priority vaccination for teachers and support staff since COVID-19 emerged. Schools are workplaces and staff safety is paramount.

Key points

  • Unions combine for a louder voice
  • Regional IEU members extremely disappointed when vaccinations cancelled
  • Queensland prioritises school staff for vaccination
  • Teachers blamed for not supporting NSW Government bus plan for Year 12s
Follow the Queensland lead

The IEU calls on the NSW Government to follow Queensland’s lead and prioritise school and early learning staff for COVID-19 vaccinations.

“School staff and childcare workers will be added to Queensland’s 1B priority list for COVID-19 vaccinations,” Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said in a statement on 8 August.

“The Delta strain has taken a heavy toll on our schools and we need to provide the best possible protection for staff and students.
“The Queensland Chief Health Officer has approved that any individual working in an early learning, primary, secondary or special school is now in the high-risk priority group.”

Read the full statement here:

The highly contagious Delta strain of COVID-19 means it is crucial that schools and early learning services be treated as essential workplaces. The NSW Government has prioritised the vaccination of school staff in Sydney’s eight hotspot local government areas, but not in the rest of the state.

IEU members outside Sydney were shocked to receive text messages on 1 August indicating they had been ‘bumped’ from the queue so vaccine supply could be redirected to Sydney.

NSW Government messaging was confusing. Many members feared a return to face-to-face teaching threatened their health. Why was the government treating schools so differently to other workplaces?

School staff unite

Through media engagement and advocacy, the IEU campaigned throughout 2020 and 2021 to protect the health and welfare of school and early learning staff.

The IEU joined with the NSW Teachers Federation – uniting the voices of more than 100,000 teachers and support staff in over 3000 schools – to call for a delay in Year 12s returning to school in the Greater Sydney Area. The statement said, in part:

“We are reminded daily that workplaces and human interaction are the main contributors to increased transmissions in the community. Schools are workplaces and, as teachers, our business is human interaction.

The NSW Government has recently described NSW as being in a state of “national emergency”. The decision to return HSC students in the Greater Sydney Area to schools in mid-August is dangerous, unsafe, and unwise.

As teachers, we are determined to welcome students back to face-to-face learning as soon as possible, but this can only happen when it is safe to do so.”

Teachers were blamed for not providing supervision to help run the government’s ill-fated plan to bus Year 12s to the Homebush vaccination hub.

The NSW Government did not consult the union about this matter. Schools were advised of the plan, and it was stated that chaperones from the PCYC would be on the buses. Then it was quickly dumped. Too complex – and no consultation.

Union calls on Premier and Health Minister

The IEU released to the media an open letter to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on 2 August, calling on her to rethink the return to school of Year 12s as vaccination rates were just too slow and the Delta variant was spreading so fast, turning schools into unsafe workplaces.

The IEU also joined forces with the Australian Education Union and the United Workers Union to send a letter to Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, calling for priority vaccine access for all teachers and early childhood educators. It states in part:

“We note that recent outbreaks resulting in lockdowns have again revealed the critical role schools and early learning services play in supporting children and families. We recognise that in all recent lockdowns (except the NT), early learning services were required to remain open as a frontline essential service and that schools in Greater Sydney have been required to return to online learning.

Teachers, educators and education support staff are feeling overwhelming stress and anxiety because of safety concerns and increased workloads to manage impacts of lockdowns and remote learning.

Millions of families and children rely on schools and early learning services each and every day. The fastest way to minimise the impact of any future COVID outbreaks on the community is to ensure that schools and early learning services can remain open with fully vaccinated staff.

Schools and early learning services provide a critical societal function, and ensuring the health and safety of the teachers, educators and support staff is vital to ensuring this work can continue. In addition, ensuring staff are fully vaccinated is also the most effective way to minimise the risk of infection amongst children, especially with new variants emerging.

We call on you to confirm higher priority of access of COVID-19 vaccinations to all teachers, educators and education support staff as frontline workers, following the current priorities of aged care, healthcare, disability care, border and quarantine and other vulnerable worker populations.

Schools and early childhood centres need to be safefor staff required to work on site. All staff should have access to vaccines and be protected from risk of harm as much as possible.

Before any schools in Greater Sydney and regional areas impacted by lockdown can be opened for face-to-face teaching, all teachers and support staff in both primary and secondary schools, as well as early childhood settings, must be prioritised for vaccination.

Assessment and reporting for all students, not just those in Year 12, also needs to be part of the planning for the remainder of the year.

Teachers, principals and school staff are all doing their utmost. It is unfair for the NSW Government to make such high-impact decisions without consultation. We call on the government to consult with teachers and their unions about any return to the workplace.”

The fastest way to minimise the impact of any future COVID outbreaks on the community is to ensure schools and early learning services can remain open with fully vaccinated staff.

Solidarity with teachers and support staff

The IEU has received public messages of support from the South Coast Labour Council and the Southern NSW Branch of the Maritime Union of Australia that bolstered IEU members, particularly those in the Illawarra region.

In a media release, the Labour Council stated:

“The South Coast Labour Council, the peak body representing Illawarra and South Coast workers, has voiced strong concerns with NSW Government plans for a return of Year 12 students to school on 16 August. This announcement appears to have been made without any objective health evidence to suggest that the current Delta outbreak in NSW is under control. The announcement, if allowed to proceed, would result in more than 50,000 students and teachers across the Greater Sydney Area returning to school in less than two weeks.

Arthur Rorris, South Coast Labour Council Secretary said, “The first step is for the Premier and her health chief to sit down with the unions representing those workers and reach a consensus on these questions.”

The MUA (Southern NSW Branch) also offered support to IEU members:

“On behalf of members, staff and officials of the MUA Southern NSW Branch, we send our sincere solidarity and unity to teachers and staff at schools across our region and beyond.

The NSW Government decision, regarding Year 12 students returning to school, not only exposes the students to a heightened risk, but also teachers and staff.

We also acknowledge the fine work being done through online learning platforms and in person at schools as they carry out their responsibilities and care for children of their own. Wonderful work by all.

Again, comrades, we thank you, we support you and we stand in solidarity with you all.”