It has been another uneasy summer for teachers around much of Australia.
Having navigated nearly two years of challenging online learning, teachers watched as the Omicron variant sent COVID-19 infections through the roof, making a return to the classroom in 2022 a challenging proposition.
“This was the time of the year when teachers and principals were hoping to be able to switch off and put a bit of distance between their work and themselves to be able to recharge their batteries,” Angelo Gavrielatos, President of the New South Wales Teachers Federation, told “On the Job”.
“Unfortunately, they’ve not been able to do so. And let’s face it, the last 12 months, indeed the last two months have been exhausting,” Mr Gavrielatos said.
As the start of the school year looms, various state governments have been scrambling to come up with new COVID-19 protocols for a return to classroom teaching.
The virulent nature of the Omicron variant has heightened fears that schools could be a breeding ground for an acceleration in infections. This could tilt our already creaking health systems over the edge.
Just as importantly, the health of teachers, principals and other school workers could be put at risk.
Busy classrooms and ventilation systems not designed to cope with pandemic conditions could present something of a perfect storm for the virus, jeopardising workers health.
President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Michele O’Neil, told “On the Job” that it was extraordinary that workers were once again having to fight for the right to not have to work in an unsafe environment.
“Workers and unions fought for decades to win strong health and safety laws so that workers wouldn’t be forced to work when they’re sick. Secondly, to not realise the connection that if you don’t have healthy workers, if you don’t keep workers safe, then of course that’s going to be worse for everyone.”
In states like Victoria and New South Wales, COVID safety measures to ensure the start of the school year include.
- Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) will be made available free at schools for four weeks.
- Twice weekly surveillance testing is recommended for all primary and secondary students, staff and early childhood (EC) education and care workers.
- Students and staff at specialist schools are recommended to test five days a week due to higher risk settings and vulnerabilities.
- The delivery of air purification devices to government and low-fee non-government schools for the first day of erm 1.
- Mask wearing to continue, including a requirement for students in grade 3 and above to wear masks indoors (Victoria). Teachers are required to wear masks at all times when not teaching or communicating with students.
Meredith Peace is the Victorian President of the Australian Education Union (AEU). She believes the Victorian plan offers a way back to the classroom, but is urging vigilance.
“Teachers, principals and support staff in schools and early childhood have been wanting to see a comprehensive return to school plan. The measures outlined by the Andrews Government will help to reduce risk and also focus on the health and safety of staff and students, while balancing the need to have our students back at school and in EC settings where they can continue to access the high-quality education and support they need in a face to face environment.
“However, we must continue to monitor the implementation of the plan and its adequacy given the gravity of the circumstances we are dealing with, and the continuously changing nature of this virus,” Ms Peace said.
In New South Wales, the approach to mask wearing in classrooms is different. Masks have been mandated for all secondary students, but not for primary aged children in year 3 and above (though it is recommended).
It’s a source of frustration for Angelo Gavrielatos.
“The (NSW) government has announced that surgical quality masks are to be worn indoors at all times by staff in primary and secondary settings and strongly recommends the wearing of masks for primary aged students.
“We’ve pointed out that that is a contradiction with respect to the settings in Victoria, where primary age students are also required to wear masks in indoors. Further, we argued that the mass supplied should be the higher grade (P2) masks and the New South Wales government continues to say that their advice is that the surgical masks are adequate. Again, we say you can overcompensate the risk mitigation strategies.”
Meredith Peace is adamant Unions will be watching closely as the school year begins, and reiterated the simple principle that teachers and workers should not be expected to work if they are sick.
“We continue to reject the close contact exemption and isolation rules for school staff where they are asymptomatic, as their attendance at work will increase the risk of transmission and potentially compromise the safety of the school community.”