It's a collective responsibility

As schools across NSW and the ACT return for 2022 many questions regarding the management of COVID-19 remain cloudy. To suggest the management of a pandemic is personal responsibility is to downplay a serious situation.

The prevailing sentiment in NSW has gone from ‘we’re all in this together’ to a ‘tough it out’ approach emanating from the so-called ‘freedom day’ in mid-December 2021.

Two years of cautious public policy (masks, social distancing, contact tracing, deep cleaning) evaporated overnight.

However, a shadow lockdown emerged as NSW residents craved a more cautious approach than the one sought by the NSW government.

This phenomenon of an unofficial, cautious approach was reflected in the concerns of IEU members as they prepared to return to school.

Interestingly, the Public Health Order (PHO) issued on 25 January kept in place the following settings. In summary:

  • one person per two square metres – restaurants/cafes etc
  • masks in indoor settings
  • QR codes for hospitality and retail check-ins
  • Singing and dancing in hospitality venues not permitted.

  • The re-issued PHO closely resembles the public health orders abandoned in mid-December 2021.

    The IEU has had a consistent position of:

  • ensuring safety at work for our members
  • consultation at peak level
  • most importantly, consultation at chapter level• following expert medical advice.

  • What does this mean in a practical sense?

  • free provision of RAT tests to all
  • better quality N95 masks to be provided
  • additional cleaning schedules
  • focus on ventilation
  • managing staff absences
  • priority booster shots for school staff (already announced in the ACT).

  • It’s worth considering the situation in both Canada and the UK, where school systems are struggling with return-to-work issues. In Canada, teacher unions are seeking:

  • provide N95 masks to teachers, education workers, and students
  • prioritise booster shots for teachers and education workers
  • improve school ventilation
  • reduce class sizes to allow for physical distancing
  • mandate contact tracing in schools
  • mandate the reporting of covid cases
  • provide adequate quantities of rapid antigen tests to all education workers and families
  • consult and engage with education stakeholders when making decisions.In the UK, unions are seeking several measures for the start of the spring term:
  • that revised and updated risk assessments are in place and that these were subject to consultation with staff
  • that updated individual risk assessments will be provided for staff/pupils with vulnerable clinical conditions
  • that staff who can work from home will be able to do so.
    • where any aspect of a teacher’s work can be undertaken off-site, such as attendance at meetings, there should be no expectation for teachers to remain on-site
  • arrangements for the effective implementation of mass on-site testing of pupils, where applicable
  • that all measures are in place to ensure full compliance with the relevant government guidance, including full compliance with rules on self-isolation.

  • Teachers and support staff in school systems overseas are not unlike those in NSW. They are doing what is reasonably required to make schools safe workplaces.

    In NSW the IEU has been contacting employers seeking talks. A national plan for schools was slow to emerge. When it did, it was left to the schools to plan and implement the many layers necessary to ensure safety.

    Schools and the communities they serve deserve better. Schools are complex workplaces. Let’s ensure they are also safe workplaces.

    Intense planning is required to ensure education can be delivered safely. There is a chasm between government rhetoric and the reality for schools. IEU chapters must insist employers consult with them regularly.