The brief window between lockdowns, when students returned to school and our worlds extended beyond five kilometres, already feels like a distant dream. People’s capacity to adapt has been tested like never before – and this is arguably truer for Victoria’s educators than for any other profession. What has been emphasised by the pandemic is that teachers, educators and support staff truly are essential workers. This has always been the case, but no more so than this year, when they have continued to deliver quality education for students amid high anxiety and repeated upheavals.
The start of Term 3 was tumultuous, as the number of infections rose dramatically across the state and dozens of schools and kindergartens were forced to close due to confirmed cases. While no-one recognises the importance of face-to-face teaching better than education professionals themselves, in an escalating pandemic, health and safety has to come first.
As the state’s situation worsened, the AEU banded with the Independent Education Union to demand that principals be given the flexibility to determine staffing arrangements, with a view to limiting the number of staff and students attending on-site. The unions argued that the government policy requiring schools in Melbourne and Mitchell Shire to provide face-to-face teaching for VCE, VCAL and special school students posed unnecessary risks to their communities.
This situation was largely resolved with the introduction of stage 4 restrictions, which has seen a return to remote and flexible learning for most school and kindergarten students across Victoria. While many logistical and educational concerns remain, particularly regarding Year 12 VCE assessments, schools have again provided students with an impressively smooth transition from on-site classes to remote learning.
On the upside… almost 96% believed they had developed new teaching skills.
If COVID-19 has highlighted the skills of educators generally, it has shone a particular light on the highly skilled workforce in our special schools. Few people can perform the kind of complex tasks required in special schools – however, much of what makes this work so essential is what also puts those members at higher risk.
The AEU has been advocating for greater flexibility for our members working in special schools, to minimise the number of staff attending the workplace while ensuring the education program is available to students who attend on-site, alongside those learning from home. This has seen DET update its position in the School Operations Guide – especially important for members in regional and rural schools, who remain under stage 3 lockdown. In settings where student attendance remains high, we are working with members to ensure that any risks and hazards are appropriately addressed.
The AEU has been collating the results of our survey investigating the impact of COVID-19 on members following the first shift to remote and flexible learning. Not surprisingly, more than 80% of members, from both metro and rural/regional areas, said this move greatly changed the way they do their work. While almost all said this caused an increase in workload, it was a “significant increase” for more than 50%, many of whom found it particularly time-consuming giving individual feedback and support to students. This situation caused stress and anxiety for the vast majority, with the demands of shifting to remote modes of teaching – and the related workload – the top cause, followed by student interactions, and health and safety concerns.
On the upside, while more than half of members said they did not initially feel confident about the shift away from face-to-face teaching – and less than half felt they had adequate training and preparation time – almost 96% believed they had developed new teaching skills. The use of technology, lesson presentation and preparation, student interaction and staff collaboration were the top improvements cited.
As always, the AEU will continue to meet regularly with the state government and the department to drive home the need for sustainable workloads, adequate preparation and, most of all, the health and wellbeing of staff and students.
Among the main concerns for members was the enormous challenge of catering for the diversity of student needs during remote learning. Common issues included students’ lack of equipment or ICT skills; not being able to keep track of student progress or observe them clearly; trouble authenticating assessments; the struggle to impart practical skills in science and hands-on subjects; and an unwillingness of students to participate in video classes. Many were concerned about student wellbeing, and the risk of weaker or vulnerable kids falling through the cracks.
Members in special schools remarked on the difficulty of providing relevant, accessible content for students with physical disabilities, who need hands-on materials and physical assistance to complete tasks. The usual focus on early communication, behaviour management, and building social and emotional skills has been especially challenging. Like their colleagues in other settings, the struggle to impart fundamental literacy and maths concepts has been significant, with some reporting the need to pitch activities at a lower level to allow parents to support their children’s learning. The AEU will continue to use these survey results to inform COVID-related discussions with government, as well as the upcoming negotiations for the next Schools Agreement.
Schools’ capacity to adapt will once again be called upon as we manage the prospective return to on-site learning in Term 4. As always, the AEU will continue to meet regularly with the state government and the department to drive home the need for sustainable workloads, adequate preparation and, most of all, the health and wellbeing of staff and students.