Safe return to school - How the union fights for you

As the Omicron wave surged in early January, the IEU hit the ground running to ensure the safest possible start to the year for all members. Here’s how.

One of the ways the IEU lobbies government and pressures employers is through the media. The IEU released four statements to the media in the week beginning 10 January. These statements were widely picked up and reported on in mainstream and regional media.

Throughout January, the union met with the NSW Department of Education about COVID-19 safety measures and held talks with NESA to clarify accreditation issues raised by the NSW Premier in the media to ensure professional standards are not eroded.

We contacted employers, including the Directors of the 11 Catholic dioceses and the Association of Independent Schools with a 12-point plan to keep schools as safe as possible, including adequate ventilation and no additions to already heavy workloads. We’ve taken countless calls and emails addressing individual members’ concerns.

As the year begins, we urge members to hold Chapter meetings and invite your Organiser so the union knows your needs. And as the year proceeds, we urge all employers to consult at the level of individual schools, listen to staff concerns, and provide all reasonable support.

The IEU supports free, readily available rapid-antigen tests (RATs).

Consultation is crucial

As infection rates soared, the union released a statement to the media on 10 January calling for the NSW Government to consult with school staff through their union to provide a clear plan for the start of the school year.

We called for consultation on crucial work health and safety protections including classroom ventilation; access to free rapid-antigen tests; vaccination of students, especially those aged 5-11; booster shots for school staff; and strategies to mitigate current and growing staff shortages.

“The situation was confusing for teachers, employers, parents and the union,” said IEUA NSW/ACT Assistant Secretary Pam Smith on 10 January. “It is critical that everyone’s health and safety be protected to prevent the return to school becoming a super-spreader event.”

The NSW Government subsequently released its return-to-school plan on 23 January, and representatives from the Department of Education met with the IEU on 24 January to address the union’s concerns about safe workplaces.

No weakening of workplace safety

The Federal Government announced on 13 January it was exempting all education staff from COVID isolation protocols. Staff who were ‘close contacts’ of a positive COVID case would no longer be required to isolate for seven days, but could come to work providing they returned a negative RAT (not that tests were available as staff began returning to schools).

The IEU immediately opposed the shifting definition of ‘close contact’ and the risks it carried. “This is an abject failure of public policy,” the union said in a media statement.

“It means our members will be forced to work knowing they are a close contact and could infect others, or that they are working with close contacts and could get infected and carry the illness home to their own families.”

Watering down work health and safety protections in the third year of a pandemic because the government failed to plan was unacceptable, the union said.

“As a teacher, I cannot, in all conscience, walk into a classroom as a known close contact and say, ‘hey kids, the rule doesn’t apply to me, but it does to you – have a nice day!”’ said IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Vice President Tina Ruello.

The union has also written to employers including Diocesan Directors and the Association of Independent schools urging them to adopt stringent isolation protocols.

“The union opposes the exemption of education staff from isolation rules and calls on employers to provide assurances that staff identified as close contacts will not be asked to attend the workplace,” the union said as part of a 12-point safety plan.

“Employees who are isolating should do so without deduction of pay or leave entitlements. They may be given appropriate tasks to perform from home.”

Retirees and students roped in

Over the weekend of 15-16 January, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet announced a plan to stem teacher shortages and fill staffing gaps. He proposed reinstating recently retired teachers and fast-tracking accreditation of graduate students and support staff.

IEU members expressed their dismay and anger on social media.

The IEU rejected, via a statement to the media, another proposal that did not involve consultation with those who do the work. The plan was problematic. Returning retired teachers to classrooms was asking a vulnerable demographic to step into the firing line.

“To call retired teachers back into service creates a dangerous environment not only for the teachers but for their families,” said IEUA NSW/ACT Branch President Christine Wilkinson. “It is a disgrace to ask some of the most vulnerable members of our society to cover for the failings of the NSW Government.”

Fast-tracking accreditation is also fraught, the union said. Graduate students thrown in the deep end with little or no support are at risk of burnout; and co-opting support staff into classrooms only creates other shortages, leaving their vital roles unfilled.

The union reminded the government it had known about staff shortages long before Omicron emerged and urged employers to provide appropriately qualified staff.

“Every effort should be made by employers to ensure that staff absences are covered by engaging qualified casual teachers and casual support staff,” the union wrote in a formal letter to the Diocesan Directors and the AIS.

“The union is concerned about suggestions in the media that untrained staff could be used – volunteers are subject to the same child-protection and duty-of-care framework and would need to be properly trained.”

The IEU rejects any undermining of the teaching profession.

Early childhood sector in crisis

Teachers in early learning centres have only a brief break over Christmas. They’ve been on the frontline since the COVID crisis began, with no option to work from home; nor can they socially distance from their young, unvaccinated charges.

“The sector has been experiencing staff shortages for some years, and Omicron has only exacerbated the problem, forcing many centres to close while staff are furloughed,” the union said in a second statement to the media on 12 January.

Teachers and directors in these centres have been telling the union they felt abandoned by government in the face of this crisis. Again, confusion is only adding to current COVID anxieties, and one director told us that centres don’t know what’s happening from one day to the next.

The IEU has been pressuring employers and government for stronger COVID safety measures in early childhood centres. Issues that arise in this sector often serve as a bellwether for the school sector.

Read more
  • Media release: Let’s avoid replicating early childhood crisis in schools, 12 January 2022
  • IEU in the media
  • IEU adds to call for more attention to ECEC from Government as COVID-19 continues, The Sector, 13 January 2022
  • Unions says exempting education staff from isolation rules is ‘a public policy failure’, The Sector, 14 January 2022
  • National Framework for managing COVID-19 in Schools and Early Childhood Education and Care, Community Early Learning Australia, 24 January 2022

  • The IEU would like to hear the issues our members are experiencing in schools, and we are keen to ensure employers are meeting their WHS obligations.“As the 2022 school year starts, the health and safety of all teachers, principals and support staff working in all sectors of our membership is paramount,” said IEUA NSW/ACT Branch President Christine Wilkinson.

    “Employers should be providing all personal protective equipment requirements to staff so they can carry out their day-to-day duties and all WHS issues are fully covered.
    “Students should have qualified teachers providing and delivering quality lessons. Volunteers and parents should at no point be asked or employed to take the place of a teacher.
    “If at any time members feel that their safety or the safety of students is not being met, please hold a Chapter meeting to discuss the relevant issues and invite your Organiser to attend.”

    Monica Crouch