The COVID-19 pandemic has been the greatest disruption to Australian society in more than half a century. Being at the centre of that society, Australian public schools have felt that disruption particularly acutely. The speed with which the infection spread from Wuhan to the Victorian school gates was so unprecedented (as you’ll see on page 24, the Spanish Flu pandemic took months, not weeks to reach Australia) that schools and teachers had little time to adjust to a very different and largely untried method of learning and teaching.
Rumours of school closures began to circulate towards the end of Term 1, as coronavirus infections saw an exponential spike across the country. Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison was slow to act, insisting that it was safe to attend mass gatherings and demanding schools be kept open, the decision was taken out of his hands as state premiers enacted measures designed to protect their local populations. The concern was that, as with the bushfires earlier in the year, the Prime Minister was unable to grasp the need for urgent action in the face of an immediate threat to Australian lives.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews signalled his intention to go it alone when, despite immense pressure from Morrison, he cancelled this year’s Grand Prix at the eleventh hour. He was equally willing to break step with Morrison when it came to school closures. On Sunday 22 March, while Morrison was threatening private schools that had already closed their doors (and warning parents that they would be responsible for any consequences if they withdrew their children), Victoria announced that school holidays would begin early with on-site supervision provided for those who needed it.
Even before these changes – and the shift to remote learning – were announced, the AEU had been furiously negotiating with the Department of Education and Training to ensure arrangements for salaries and conditions were put in place. In the end, we were able to protect pay and jobs and even negotiate payments for casual workers who would lose their expected income. To further ease financial stress, our branch executive voted to suspend all union fees for casual members.
The importance of a strong union has been made clearer than ever by this crisis.
Likewise, we were able to advocate for members throughout the transition to remote learning at schools and TAFEs, to make sure the health, safety and wellbeing of our members – including those who continued their essential work in early childhood. We worked hard for our vulnerable disability members, many of whom have lost shifts and income, and were greatly disappointed by the Morrison government’s last-minute decision to deny JobKeeper support to organisations dependent on NDIS funding.
The importance of a strong union has been made clearer than ever by this crisis. Private schools across Australia have cut staff and salaries, but the size of our union – and, in Victoria, our productive relationship with the Andrews government – has allowed us to protect our members from the most damaging economic impacts of the coronavirus response.
More broadly, the ACTU has campaigned on several fronts to protect workers and their jobs, including lobbying hard to win JobKeeper payments for vulnerable employees. Unions have also sought to use this opportunity to build a fairer and safer Australia. A plan released in May called for the creation of two million new secure jobs and the halving of job insecurity to be set as a target for rebuilding the Australian economy.
The AEU will continue to negotiate with the state government to ensure our members are kept safe.
While educators worked hard to adapt their pedagogy to remote learning, Prime Minister Morrison has continued to undermine their efforts, branding virtual schooling as “childminding” and telling teachers they were on a par with supermarket workers and bus drivers – who are similarly unable to work from home.
Throughout the crisis, Morrison has insisted schools are an exception to the usual rules around social distancing, saying “the four square metre rule and the 1.5-metre distancing between students during classroom activities is not appropriate and not required”. The Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton refused to heed Morrison’s demands that schools reopen for Term 2, waiting to see if mass testing would reveal dangerous levels of community transmission. Similarly, independent schools refused Morrison’s cash bribe to open their doors before it was believed to be safe.
With infection rates remaining low across the country, it was announced on 12 May that schools would begin to reopen their gates to students towards the end of May. The AEU will continue to negotiate with the state government to ensure our members are kept safe throughout this transition, with special attention paid to any increased workload and protections in place for the most vulnerable in our communities.