Schools Putting members first during COVID-19

  • By Meredith Peace
  • This article was published more than 4 years ago.
  • 8 May 2020

AEU members have gone above and beyond the call of duty to deliver teaching and learning opportunities to students during the COVID-19 crisis. Given the sudden and dramatic shift in learning and working conditions, the AEU has been in daily contact with the Department of Education and Training to work through the extraordinary challenges for educational settings and our members. Top of the list has been ensuring member’ health and safety.

Our primary message to the government and the department was that we were happy to discuss a mix of remote learning and some on-site provision – knowing that the children of frontline workers would need access to education – but the health of staff has to be central to any arrangements put in place.

You can’t have up to 2,000 kids at a school and abide by the social distancing rules; the size and structure of our schools just don’t allow for that. The only way is to have the majority of students at home, consistent with the broader strategy for flattening the curve.

The union’s other main objective was to ensure members’ jobs were secure and that staff continued to be paid. Beyond that, we worked with DET to address the multiple issues from IT to cybersecurity, CRT wages and a working from home allowance, principal workloads, consultation, and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable members.

Then there was advocating for changes to VCE and VCAL, proposing reduced formal assessment and reporting requirements for preps through to Year 10, ensuring that there were changes to VIT registration requirements, enabling the recognition of remote teaching for student-teacher practicums, streamlining the PDP process and reducing the administrative burden on schools. The list goes on.

Scott Morrison’s rhetoric has revealed his ignorance about the reality of the way schools operate and failed to acknowledge that schools are also workplaces.

The Victorian government has stayed strong in its decision to have the majority of students learn from home at the start of Term 2, defying the federal government’s continual push for schools to remain open to all students.

Scott Morrison’s rhetoric has revealed his ignorance about the reality of the way schools operate and failed to acknowledge that schools are also workplaces. There is an element of risk, and our members are not immune to feeling that broader anxiety and concern – they don’t want to endanger their own families.

Discussions between the AEU and DET set the ratio for onsite learning at 1:10, to manage social distancing in classrooms. We also ensured that any on-site teaching be delivered by ‘volunteer’ staff members, with these teachers supervising the same online learning being provided to students staying home.

I’m incredibly proud of what our members have done in a really short space of time, working hard throughout the break, all for the benefit of students, their colleagues, parents, and the broader school community. We knew there would be technical challenges and other difficulties. Schools have had to adapt and change, according to what’s working and how students and parents are managing.

But they have made the transition as smooth as possible. That’s why Morrison’s suggestions that we weren’t pulling our weight or that we are merely babysitting were so offensive. We have been pleased that Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer Brett Sutton’s advice about the operations of schools match general community advice on staying home.

Morrison’s suggestions that we weren’t pulling our weight or that we are merely babysitting were so offensive.

These are extraordinary times, but we can’t treat schools like islands in the middle of an international health pandemic. When we open a school, we reopen a community. This is a fact that the federal government has consistently failed to address. Once you put kids on public transport and parents on the road, it undoes a lot of the good work of social distancing.

It is very bold of Morrison to be so categoric about schools being safe, but of course that’s the hubris of playing politics. The department has advised school principals to continue to plan for remote learning until the end of Term 2, with the knowledge that medical advice may change as the situation unfolds.

We know the pressure this has put on principals, not to mention all the flow-on concerns around VCE, online assessments, identifying at-risk students and maintaining student engagement. As we come out of this, we are going to have to address the issue of a return across the whole community.

We have had ongoing conversations with the department about school budgets. Schools often raise money through other avenues – international students, fundraising, out-of-hours care. We will be continuing to monitor this situation to make sure schools aren’t left in deficit due to COVID-19, with a longer-term impact on programs or staffing or working conditions.

There is no doubt that establishing a good working relationship with the Andrews government – and Minister Merlino in particular – over the past five years has made it easier to ensure the voice of AEU members is heard and considered when it comes to decisionmaking and advice. These relationships come into their own when dealing with something as serious as this. I have no doubt our members are better off for it, as are our students.

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