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Strike action looming over 'totally unworkable' return to school plan

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UPDATED | Public school teachers will go on strike on the first day of the modified school year if the State Government doesn’t adequately address ongoing COVID safety concerns, the Australian Education Union SA branch executive has recommended.

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The strike action set for Wednesday February 2 now needs to be endorsed by the union’s members in a ballot, which will open tomorrow and close on Monday.

AEU state president Andrew Gohl told InDaily “this is all about safety”.

“This is all about doing everything that’s reasonable and practical to mitigate the spread of COVID within our workplace,” he said.

Gohl said if teachers agreed to take the industrial action, “we would say we are stopping work (that day)” and it would be “up to the (Education) Department” to determine how to manage vulnerable children and those of essential workers who would still need to physically attend schools.

Asked if teachers could strike beyond that day, he said that would be decided later.

The decision to strike was made at a meeting of the AEU’s executive team today, amid concerns teachers could be forced to isolate from their own families indefinitely while continuing to teach in the classroom under the State Government’s “totally unworkable” hybrid return-to-school plan.

Unions representing public and private school teachers are united in their opposition to the State Government’s “half pregnant” plan to send multiple year levels back to school for face-to-face learning from February 2, but keep others at home for online learning.

They wanted the Government to instead delay the start of the school year by two weeks to properly plan for how schools can safely return for both staff and students, as Queensland has done.

The Australian Education Union’s SA branch executive met from 10am to thrash out concerns over the Government’s plan which allows students in preschool, reception and years 1, 7, 8 and 12 to return to classrooms for the start of the new school year from February 2, while remaining year levels will learn from home for two weeks.

The Premier says all year levels are expected to return to the classroom from February 14.

Prior to the executive meeting, AEU state president Andrew Gohl told InDaily all options were being considered, including strike action and forcing all lessons online.

“The range of responses – a spectrum of responses – include industrial action at one end through to a range of other measures coming back from that,” Gohl said before going into the meeting.

“I can’t pre-empt at this point what the outcome of those deliberations might be.

“It’s possible that everything goes online, that everything is done remotely so that students and educators are not exposed to the virus.”

The union’s concerns include a lack of information and planning around the use of rapid antigen tests in schools, a lack of transparency about the decision not to use air purifiers like Victoria is doing, and the COVID-positive isolation and close contact requirements for teachers.

In South Australia, someone is deemed a close contact if they spend 15 minutes inside face-to-face with a COVID positive person without adequate mask usage.

Gohl said that would mean teachers would constantly be deemed close contacts as students test positive.

But under the new rules announced last week, authorities have stated teachers will be considered critical workers and expected to return to the classroom if asymptomatic even if they are a close contact.

However, they will need to isolate – including from their own families – when not at school.

“It’s absurd,” Gohl said.

Independent Education Union SA branch secretary Glen Seidel told InDaily that private and Catholic school teachers were similarly angered at the return-to-school plan.

“It’s just totally, totally unworkable,” he said.

“Teachers would have hundreds of students a week – they would be potentially in contact with some kid who was a case and they would be a close contact but expected to keep teaching.

“But as soon as they stepped outside of school, they would have to go home in total isolation, not looking after their own families.

“People who are single parents and looking after their kids particularly if those kids have got medical needs, is just totally unworkable.

“On one hand the workable solution would be to say that school staff would not be counted as close contacts even if there was a case. But it would mean that the risks for staff families would escalate. There’s no easy solution to it.

“But what it is now is just totally unworkable. Whether schools opened now or two weeks later or the half pregnant model that we got, of half the kids are OK and the other half aren’t OK (to attend), it’s all very much compromised.”

Seidel said despite their concerns, industrial action for teachers in the non-government sector would be “unprotected and unlawful”.

“Because our non-government schools are in the federal industrial system, industrial action is severely limited,” he said.

“So we’re hogtied a bit by the industrial relations system.”

Adding to concerns is a lack of vaccination protection among primary school aged children, who only became eligible on January 10 and need two shots spaced eight weeks apart.

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas this morning said data showed SA had the “lowest rate” of vaccination in the country for five to 11 year olds “amongst COVID states”.

“Out of every state and territory in the nation that is dealing with COVID at the moment, South Australia has the worst vaccination rate of five to 11 year olds,” he said.

“Which probably is a contributing factor to why our schools aren’t going back but in some eastern states they are going back in time.”

Malinauskas said Federal Government data showed 11.9 per cent of South Australian children aged five to 11 had received a dose, compared to 23.4 per cent in the ACT, 14.6 per cent in Tasmania, 13.8 per cent in Victoria, 13.1 per cent in New South Wales and 12.8 per cent in both Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The rate in Western Australia, which has not yet opened its borders, is 8.9 per cent.

“I don’t want to see our school teachers strike – I think that should be avoided at all costs,” Malinauskas said.

“What I want to see is a government consulting with teachers and coming up with plan that might actually work in the real world.”

In a statement, a Government spokesperson said: “The Department for Education is working with SA Health on how positive COVID-19 cases will be managed in schools and early years settings and the use of Rapid Antigen Testing for students and staff.”

“As Minister Gardner confirmed at Friday’s COVID-19 press conference, the full outbreak management response is intended to be informed by decisions made at National Cabinet this week in relation to Rapid Antigen Tests,” the spokesperson said.

“The Minister and senior education officers discussed the AEU’s priorities with their leadership team last week, so they would be aware that Rapid Antigen Tests will be in schools this year.

“As foreshadowed at Friday’s press conference we are confident we will sensibly resolve issues relating to the management of positive cases in the near future to ensure that disruption to our students’ education is minimised this year.”

Schools uncertainty prompts concerns over youth mental health

Child and adolescent mental health experts have expressed concern about the ongoing uncertainty for students.

Emerging Minds director Brad Morgan said “we know that face-to-face attendance is best for students, teachers and families”.

“This goes beyond academic learning – school is vital for social connections. We also recognise that, for some children, school is their safe space,” he said.

“However, children, families and educators must feel safe at school.

“Clear information and an open dialogue is essential, particularly regarding decisions being made about health and wellbeing, so that everyone can feel confident to be back in the classroom.

“A number of parents who have children experiencing ongoing health concerns or with disability may need some additional information and reassurance.”

Morgan said “many children and families are feeling anxious about school in the pandemic”.

“Periods of uncertainty can have longer-term mental health impacts, but they don’t have to,” he said.

“Parents, educators and extended family can play an important role in helping children manage the feelings that come during times of uncertainty and reduce future risk of mental health concerns.”

Morgan provided the following advice on ways to help children:

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