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Teachers' strike decision drags on

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UPDATED | A decision on whether a teachers’ strike will go ahead next week is dragging on, with the education union giving the State Government a new deadline to meet its COVID safety demands for the return to school.

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But the union says it’s received some “positive” news – that the State Government has bought 3000 air purifiers for classrooms, despite earlier insisting they wouldn’t be of much use.

Crisis talks were held this afternoon between the Australian Education Union and chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier, after a majority of AEU members who took part in a ballot voted in favour of strike action if concerns weren’t adequately addressed.

The full-day strike is planned for next Wednesday February 2, the first day of term.

The union’s concerns centre around a lack of surveillance rapid antigen testing for teachers and inadequate classroom ventilation.

AEU state president Andrew Gohl said the Government had until 10am on Thursday to provide a “firm written position” on negotiated measures to facilitate the safe return of school.

“Industrial action remains on foot pending a written position provided from the department which goes to a number of matters that we’ve been talking about over the last couple of days,” he told InDaily.

He said there had been a “significant advancement” in concerns about ventilation, with education officials telling the union that 3000 air purifiers had been purchased for use in classrooms with “impediments”, such as windows that don’t open.

Gohl said in addition to the purification units recently announced for Port Pirie, “an additional 3000 have been purchased and will arrive in South Australia next week”.

“That’s a good development,” he said.

If the union’s executive is satisfied with the written response, it will recommend calling off the strike and will conduct another ballot of its members.

“I’m pretty confident by Monday next week there will be a clear position going forward,” Gohl said.

He acknowledged it doesn’t give parents much notice to plan, but insisted “the timeline is not of our creation”.

“I have been trying to engage the department since the first week of January,” he said.

“I’m confident that by Thursday 10am we will have a clear position from the department on these matters and that will mark a significant improvement on where we were at a couple of weeks ago.”

This afternoon’s meeting followed days of negotiations between union officials and education authorities.

The union wants widespread regular rapid antigen testing of teachers, in line with New South Wales and Victoria, but the Marshall Government has so far only committed to surveillance testing teachers in preschool settings, where children are too young to be vaccinated and there is a lot of close contact.

However Gohl said Spurrier had this afternoon indicated that teacher surveillance testing could be extended for use in areas with low vaccination rates, socio-economic disadvantage and in special needs schools.

The union had wanted the State Government to extend school holidays and delay the return to school by two weeks to allow for further planning, but the State Government instead announced a hybrid back-to-school model.

Students in preschool and kindergarten, reception and years 1, 7, 8 and 12 will be allowed to return to classrooms from next Wednesday, February 2.

Students in the remaining year levels will learn online from home for nearly two weeks until February 14, when all year levels are expected to return to classrooms for face-to-face schooling.

The Education Department has said principals will be allowed to make decisions at a local level about whether to allow year 2 students in composite classes with year 1 students to also return to the classroom from February 2, as well as year 11 students studying year 12 subjects.

Schools will be open from Monday for vulnerable children and those whose parents are essential workers, but lessons won’t occur until Wednesday.

Before this afternoon’s meeting between the union and Spurrier, Marshall said he hoped it would be “successful” and believed the government was “on strong ground”.

“We don’t support the strike and we are going to be doing everything we can to avert this strike,” he said.

“We’ve listened to the experts since day one in South Australia.

“We’re in respectful negotiations. The union put I think 18 or 19 issues they wanted to address with us. We responded to them earlier in the week. They’ve got that information now.

“That ballot was opened well before all of the issues had been finalised.”

“I’m hopeful that this afternoon we can have a successful meeting with Professor Spurrier with the Education Union and provide them with all of the information that they require.

“The reality is we have been working with the union for days and days since the ballot opened.

“I think if they balloted again they would get a different position.”

In a statement to InDaily late today, Education Minister John Gardner said: “We believe the union should rethink its position.”

“The Government has listened to the health advice when determining our educational settings throughout the pandemic, and we believe that it is the right course of action to continue to do so,” he said.

“As the union acknowledges in their public statement, the Government and the Department for Education have worked extremely hard to ensure that concerns and anxieties raised by staff have been addressed.

“Given that there remains only one issue [RATs] identified by the union for consideration, and it was on that issue where Professor Spurrier provided the union with direct advice this afternoon, we strongly encourage the AEU to reflect on that health advice over the public holiday.”

He said that “all Department staff will have the opportunity to engage directly with Professor Spurrier in a webinar later in the week, and we believe that this opportunity will assist in providing confidence to those who still have concerns”.

In regard to the apparent backdown on the purchase of purifiers, he said: “The department has purchased a total of 4000 air purifiers that can be used in learning spaces where natural ventilation or air quality is impacted – such as in the instance of a bushfire or other environmental conditions.”

“We’ve already sent a supply [just over 1000 units] to schools, preschools and children’s centres in Port Pirie,” he said.

“We’ll continue working with our education sites across the state to safely maximise the natural air ventilation in classrooms, which is the recommendation of SA Health, and will ensure we have adequate supply of air purifiers to quickly deploy in circumstances where they might provide some level of benefit.”

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