Gunner’s statement on schools insults integrity and safety of teaching staff

AEU NT statement, 9 April 2020

The Gunner Government’s announcement late yesterday that schools will open as normal in Term 2 was made without consulting the people who work in those schools – teachers, principals and support staff. Nor was it made in consultation with the professional and industrial organisation that represents them – the Australian Education Union.

It was made without regard to AEU members’ safety and wellbeing, or the impact that such a decision will have on their workload.

The AEU NT cannot and will not support such a decision, and nor will we continue to cooperate with a Government that fails to consult with key stakeholders before making decisions.

Three weeks ago, the Government sensibly listened to the concerns of teachers and the community and decided to make school optional for the rest of the term and introduce four pupil free days. This led to a huge drop in student attendance and alleviated much of the anxiety our members were experiencing in relation to their health, especially in larger urban schools.

However, the underlying reasons for this anxiety were never addressed, and the Government is now glibly insisting that things can largely return to normal in Term 2.

Without significant changes to the plan the Government is proposing, when Term 2 commences we can expect a return to the unprecedented levels of stress that were seen several weeks ago, in which the union office was bombarded with hundreds of phone calls and emails from members wanting to know how official health advice could be reconciled with the reality of most school environments where large numbers of workers and students attend each day.

The Government made its latest decision based on what it says is the health advice that schools are safe to remain open.

If that is the case, then why are parents being given the option of home learning for their children?

If schools are safe, then there should be no home learning option for parents, and all students should be expected to present for school as normal, rather than have special work and learning packs made up at tremendous effort and cost and sent home.

While the Government is happy to give the option for parents to keep their children at home to protect them from the threat of coronavirus, it has given no consideration to the welfare of teachers and classroom support staff who may not be comfortable with having a classroom full of up to 27 students in complete disregard of social distancing guidelines.

No government in Australia has been able to answer the question as to why social distancing guidelines that apply in the community – and which currently restrict public social gatherings to 2 people – do not apply in schools, where in many cases hundreds of students congregate in close quarters each day, with minimal capacity to enforce appropriate hygiene standards.

Decisions to put teachers, principals and support staff in potentially hazardous situations are being made by ministers and bureaucrats who are safely protected working in offices. It is unacceptable and cannot continue.

Work health and safety
Until such time as the official health guidelines are relaxed, or a suitable explanation is provided as to why the parameters in a school setting are different, the AEU NT will be insisting that the social distancing guidelines being legally enforced by authorities across Australia are strictly adhered to in classrooms and all school environments.

That may mean in some cases there will be a small handful of students in a class, instead of up to 27.

If the Government or the Department of Education attempt to override our advice, the AEU NT will take this matter to NT WorkSafe to ensure the work health and safety of our members is protected.

The obvious implication of social distancing guidelines is that the number of students physically attending schools needs to be restricted. But instead, the Gunner Government has taken the laissez faire approach of leaving it up to families as to whether their children will attend school. As such, most schools currently have no real idea how many students will be attending next term, and have been placed in the ridiculous and unfair situation of planning work delivery based on multiple hypothetical scenarios.

The result of the Government’s position is greater workloads for teachers, who in many cases have reported to the union office they are now being expected to prepare additional and differentiated work for students who remain at home. This week we have been informed of teachers who have been directed to prepare work for students based on multiple scenarios. This is an unacceptable workload burden.

Failure to consult
In her letter to school staff last night, the Minister for Education stated: “Education delivery in Term 2 will be determined by the school and tailored to the circumstances of students.”

This is a stance with significant industrial implications. As such, the union will be seeking legal advice as to whether it breaches the major change consultation and workload provisions of the teacher enterprise agreement and on that basis, considering lodging a dispute with the Fair Work Commission.

The AEU NT will be insisting to the Department that there will be ONE program of teaching and learning prepared by teachers for each group of students they teach, whether those students are at school or at home.

The union’s Full-Time Officers were due to meet today with senior departmental officers and representatives from the Minister’s office as part of a consultative forum. This group was set up to advice the Minister on school operations. As the decision on Term 2 arrangements has been made unilaterally by the Minister, we see little point in further participation at this time. We will turn our energies to advising our members on how to manage their workload and protect their health and safety.

More information – LISTEN
Radio interview – Branch President Jarvis speaking with ABC Darwin, 9 April 2020