For everyone From your president: Putting members first during COVID-19

AEU Victoria president Meredith Peace

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been incredibly proud of what AEU members have achieved, under hugely stressful circumstances, for the benefit of students, their colleagues, parents and the broader community.

Given the dramatic changes in learning and working conditions, whether on-site or at home, the AEU has been in daily contact with the department and employers to work through the extraordinary challenges. Top of the list have been members’ health and safety, wages and job security. Beyond that, we have worked with DET to address the multiple issues that have arisen, from IT to cybersecurity, wages for casual staff, securing working-from-home allowances, consultation, cleaning and hygiene, and ensuring the wellbeing of vulnerable members.

In schools, principals have been under immense pressure leading their communities through this challenging time. Alongside working out how to deliver all learning programs both remotely and on-site, staff have been dealing with particular concerns about VCE, online assessments and student engagement, especially with at-risk students. The AEU was adamant that schools must be given as much warning as possible about the timing of the return to on-site learning, once the Chief Health Officer advised it was safe to do so, and schools have done an incredible job of managing this process.

We commend our early childhood members, who have delivered programs throughout this crisis, in many instances undertaking cleaning duties as well. It has not been straightforward, with social distancing next to impossible in preschools and long day care, and many parents withdrawing students due to health concerns or financial difficulties. True to form, however, our EC members ran an effective campaign, with the support of the AEU, to achieve a government commitment to more funding for preschool cleaning.

TAFE teachers have done a huge amount of work in little time to transfer their curriculum online so that students could continue to learn remotely. One of the most obvious challenges has been delivery and assessment in more practically-based qualifications, such as construction, which in many instances have had to continue on-site with distancing, hygiene and rostering measures.

There is no doubt that our good working relationship with the Andrews government makes it easier for the AEU to ensure the voice of members is heard.

Some of the greatest difficulties, though, have been faced by members working in disability day services, many of whom have been stood down or redeployed. Access to JobKeeper has been fraught, with most employers not meeting the federal government eligibility criteria, leaving many disability members with little or no income. We are continuing to advocate for these workers, who do such an important job of supporting people with disability to access education and stay connected to the wider community.

Whilst debate has raged about government decisions on educational delivery across all sectors, the AEU has been able to work effectively with DET, employers and the government to provide support to our members. This has been challenging at times, with conservative politicians continually pushing for schools to remain open to all students. Morrison’s rhetoric has revealed his ignorance about the reality of the way schools, preschools, and TAFEs operate, failing to acknowledge that these are also workplaces. Worse than that, his suggestions that teachers weren’t pulling their weight and that we were merely “babysitting” have been deeply offensive.

In Victoria, there is no doubt that establishing a good working relationship with the Andrews government over the past five years has made it easier for the AEU to ensure the voice of members is considered when it comes to decision-making and advice. These relationships come into their own when dealing with something as serious as this pandemic. As we emerge from this crisis, education settings will need continued support to address the many issues – predicted and unforeseen – that arise as a result of the disruption.

As we get back to something resembling ‘normal’, we can start to turn our minds to what we have learnt throughout this pandemic, which has turned educational delivery on its head. We must ensure the voice of the profession is central to any debates and discussions about changes to education. We must be on our guard against some of the vested interests, corporate edu-businesses particularly, who seek to profit from online forms of teaching and assessment that sideline the involvement of teachers. Appropriate resourcing for disadvantaged students must also be a priority if we are to ensure any gaps we have narrowed don’t now disappear.

One major positive that has come from this crisis is far greater appreciation of educators among the broader community. With most students learning from home, parents have gained much more insight into the complexity of our roles – something we’ve seen expressed repeatedly on social media. Better late than never!

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