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Education chief urges teachers to call off 'divisive' strike

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The head of the Education Department has issued a plea to the SA teachers’ union to call off a threatened strike when school returns next Wednesday, saying it would be “divisive in staffrooms” and had already caused “community criticism of educators”.

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Australian Education Union (AEU) officials will meet at 4pm this afternoon to discuss whether they should recommend calling off the strike action planned for February 2 – the first day of term one.

The union gave the State Government until 10am this morning to respond to concerns about the safe return of schools, with the use of rapid antigen tests (RATs) being a key sticking point in the negotiations.

Union members want regular surveillance testing of students and teachers, but the government argues that would provide a false sense of comfort and is only necessary in preschools and early learning centres where staff come in close contact with children.

Almost two-thirds of teachers who responded to a union survey last week said they supported striking in protest against the government’s stance, but the union is yet to decide whether to go ahead with the industrial action.

In an emailed letter to Australian Education Union state branch president Andrew Gohl this morning, the department’s chief executive Rick Persse urged the union to call off the strike.

“The threat of this action is adding to anxiety amongst staff and school/preschool communities,” he wrote.

“It will be divisive in staffrooms.

“It is already causing community criticism of educators, a profession that deserves recognition and praise from across the community for what they have achieved and will continue to achieve.

“My senior staff and I have worked in good faith with you and your team.

“I believe we have made genuine progress and that we have shared goals for our staff and your members.”

Persse wrote that chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier met with the union and gave an “in depth” explanation of her advice not to use rapid antigen tests in primary and secondary schools, contrary to moves in Victoria and New South Wales to recommend their use.

He stated that the Department had accepted SA Health’s advice throughout the pandemic and doing so had placed it in a “strong position”.

“DFE (Department for Education) has already advised of RAT surveillance for staff in early childhood and care due to its different setting and 7-day RAT to stay protocols for classroom contacts,” he wrote.

“The AEU is also aware that DFE and SA Health are partnering in a trial of RAT test to stay for students in special settings.”

The department chief confirmed that his staff had ordered an additional 3000 air purifiers, bringing its total stockpile to 4050.

He said his department was also reviewing working arrangements for “vulnerable” staff, as well as its policy position on leave and flexible working arrangements if teachers need to isolate.

The use of the rapid antigen tests we just can’t agree with the union on

Premier Steven Marshall said the government and union were unable to agree on the use of rapid antigen tests.

He said he met with Spurrier yesterday to discuss the union’s concerns.

“She said that she had a very good meeting with the AEU on Tuesday afternoon,” he told reporters.

“I think last week they presented us with 18 or 19 demands and I think they’ve been whittled down to three or four, maybe five.

“The major sticking point was the use of RATs, but I think Professor Spurrier outlined in a lot of detail why the use of rapid antigen tests not applied correctly could give a lot of false sense of security to teachers.

“It’s a point in time test, it’s highly inaccurate in terms of false negatives.

“We think it’s best to stick with the health advice we have at the moment.”

Asked if he was confident that the strike action had been avoided, Marshall responded: “let’s wait and see, but I don’t believe there is any need for strike action in South Australia”.

“I think we have a very sensible and safe return to school plan in South Australia,” he said.

“We’re hopeful that we can avoid that strike action.

“But, the use of the rapid antigen tests we just can’t agree with the union on.”

Gohl said he would speak to reporters this afternoon after the union’s executive meeting.

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.

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