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Postpone school return to avert teacher strike: union

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UPDATED | The teachers’ union says it will not go ahead with a strike if the State Government agrees to extend school holidays by two weeks to make safer COVID plans, instead of sending half the state’s children back to classrooms on February 2.

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But the Premier has ruled it out and the Education Minister says extra holidays would be more of a “burden” on families than the Government’s staggered return to school, which will see some students back in the classroom but many parents managing online learning from home.

Education Minister John Gardner has also assured teachers they won’t be forced into isolation at home while continuing to work in the classroom after coming into contact with COVID positive students – but says the details are still being worked out as he attempts to stave off strike action planned for the first day of term.

It comes amid revelations the State Government purchased a thousand air purifiers last year at a cost of half a million dollars but has no immediate plans to use them.

Gardner and Premier Steven Marshall met with the Australian Education Union this morning, after the union’s executive yesterday decided to recommend a strike on February 2, the first day of term, unless the Government adequately addresses COVID safety concerns.

Union members have until next Monday to vote on whether to go ahead with the stop-work action.

AEU state president Andrew Gohl told InDaily today’s meeting was “unhelpful”, with the Government offering “platitudes”.

Gohl said that during the meeting the union leadership offered to “pull” the ballot for industrial action if the Government agreed to adopt a “sensible approach” by delaying the start of term by two weeks.

He said the Premier rejected a delayed start, offering instead to provide the union with “briefings”.

“The Premier offers SA educators plenty of praise and thanks but these are simply platitudes if not backed up with actions that reflect respect for educators and their justifiable concerns,” Gohl said.

“His actions are ignoring the fears and concerns of South Australian educators who are simply asking for the detail to guide them in an Omicron learning environment.

“Today’s meeting gave AEU SA leadership no comfort that the Government or the Education Department can provide a safe working environment for students and staff.”

This afternoon, Marshall ruled out extending the school holidays.

“We couldn’t agree to the union’s request to delay the school year by two weeks,” he said.

“We believe we’ve got the balance right here in South Australia. We will be proceeding with that.

“I’ve got to put the children of South Australia first, also the teachers and the parents.

“We’ve taken all of these things into account.”

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.

Under the Government’s plan, classroom learning will resume on February 2 for students in preschools and kindergartens as well as reception and years 1, 7, 8 and 12.

Students in other year levels will need to learn online at home for two weeks, until face-to-face lessons return for everyone on February 14.

Prior to this morning’s meeting, Gardner said it was unlikely the Government would change its mind and instead extend holidays by two weeks.

“I don’t think that that’s likely and I don’t think that that would be something the community would want either,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“We think that having kids at home for an extra two weeks would be a significant burden on parents, the economy and it would damage their education.

“We’d hoped the union would talk to us about this before recommending to their members to vote (for strike action).

“We can absolutely assure educators that in the event of a COVID positive case in their classroom it is not our intention to require them to attend the workplace each day but then isolate at home.

“We are working through that with SA Health at the moment to finalise how close contacts in schools and preschools will be managed.”

Gardner said the details would be communicated as soon as they were finalised “but it involves likely the use of rapid antigen tests and we’re keen to work through that in the national cabinet context”.

“We will be announcing those details, our intent is, by the end of this week,” he said.

“Classroom contacts will not be treated in the same way as close contacts. We’re very confident of this and we’re working with (chief public health officer) Professor (Nicola) Spurrier on the final details.”

Asked to clarify the circumstances in which teachers would need to isolate, Gardner said: “If they have a positive COVID test or if indeed the close contact arrangements that exist outside of schools – so for example if somebody in their home was a positive case”.

Gardner said details were still being finalised with Spurrier about what exactly teachers will be required do if they come into contact with a COVID positive student.

“We’ve got two weeks before the start of school and we’ve always committed to having these matters resolved well in advance of the start of school,” he said.

“I think the AEU bosses would do well to work with us in talking through these issues.

“I’m confident that working together we will be able to provide an excellent start to the school year to all our students.”

The State Government has previously announced that air purifiers will not be part of its strategy for making classrooms safer, as is occurring in other states such as Victoria.

But Gardner this morning said the Government had last year bought 1000 air purifiers costing “in the order of about half a million dollars”.

However, there were no immediate plans to use them in the state’s 16,000 classrooms, because a trial had shown they “didn’t shift the dial in a significant way as you’d hope in actually improving air quality”.

“We tried them with windows open, doors open, doors closed, in staff rooms, in libraries, in classrooms, and they didn’t make the sort of meaningful difference that you would hope,” Gardner said.

However he said they might be useful in future.

“In the context of a bushfire, you want a fleet of these to deploy to nearby towns, potentially nearby hills areas if the school isn’t closing but the air quality is not sufficient,” he said.

“I’m confident that if we need to use them we’ll get great use out of them.

“I don’t apologise for having that money spent on purchasing a number…”

Gardner said the health advice was “very strong that the best way to improve ventilation in any classroom if you don’t have a fresh air intake air-conditioner is to open the windows and doors and that’s what we’re working on”.

“A significant number of our classrooms have modern air conditioning which is actually a better outcome for all involved as well,” he said.

“We’ll continue to work on improving air conditioning and make those modifications in classrooms where necessary to be able to open windows and have better airflow.”

Health unions also meet with Premier over ‘crisis’

Meanwhile, three key health unions also met with the Premier this morning to discuss South Australia’s healthcare system and its ability to cope with the ongoing pandemic.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation SA branch, the South Australian Salaried Medical Officers Association (SASMOA) and the Ambulance Employees Association of SA aired their concerns with Marshall and Health Minister Stephen Wade.

The unions – representing 25,000 nurses, doctors and paramedics – had written to the Premier on Friday seeking an urgent meeting to discuss the healthcare “crisis”.

“The pressure on the health system is relentless and has caused ramping, overcrowding, delayed and missed care,” their letter stated.

Emerging from the meeting, the doctors’ union said it had been “productive”.

“It was positive and a number of commitments are being considered,” SASMOA chief industrial officer Bernadette Mulholland told InDaily.

“Really what we were doing was reaching out for more participation in the planning moving forward that (COVID) is a disease that is not going to go away, we are going to see more variants in the future and we want to understand the planning long term.”

The Ambulance Employees Association (AEA) was less optimistic about the meeting.

“There was some agreement or commitment that (the Premier) was prepared to make around further meetings and talking more about strategy and framework and moving forward,” AEA state secretary Leah Watkins told InDaily.

“We took the opportunity to stress the point of how much the ambulance service is failing South Australians in that we are so grossly unable to meet response times.

“We’ve been in crisis for so long… and that was the main message that I emphasised to the Premier – that the ambulance service is unable to meet its essential requirement.

“Its main purpose is to be able to get there to save lives and reduce suffering. We weren’t doing that before the pandemic and we are even more so unable to do that now.”

Watkins said “we haven’t been given any commitment or reassurance that additional staffing will be forthcoming”.

“I believe he is looking into it but unfortunately we’ve had a long time of the Government considering it, looking into it, with no significant tangible outcomes from that,” she said.

In their letter to Marshall, the unions said as case number rise, their members are experiencing issues including unprecedented ambulance delays of up to seven hours for emergency cases; staff shortages requiring others to work up to 18 hours a day; lack of personal protective equipment; overflowing hazardous waste bins and lack of breaks.

This afternoon Marshall described the meeting with health unions as “very respectful”.

“It was a positive meeting – I think we moved forward on a number of issues and we’re certainly committed to ongoing negotiations,” he said.

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