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Teachers on leave asked to return to work as COVID 'contingency'

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South Australian teachers on leave have been asked to consider cancelling their holidays to fill emergency relief teaching positions, despite the Education Minister saying only about 15 per cent of dedicated relief teachers are currently working.

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The Education Department last week sent a text message to just over 1250 public school teachers seeking “expressions of interest” from those on leave to undertake emergency relief work.

The message, seen by InDaily, said those who accepted the offer would be re-credited with any leave days worked and paid at the emergency relief teacher rate.

“In response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Department for Education is looking to support schools and preschools to meet increased short-term staffing needs through access to teachers on leave available for emergency relief teaching work in Term 1,” the message said.

“We’re seeking expressions of interest from teachers currently on leave who are interested in undertaking emergency relief work.”

The department said since sending the message, 81 teachers had expressed an interest in stopping their leave to fill relief teaching positions.

A similar message was sent to about 1500 recently retired teachers asking them to volunteer to fill relief teaching positions, with 115 agreeing to return to work.

It comes after Education Minister John Gardner told reporters on Friday that there were 4000 temporary relief teachers who were registered with the department, but only about 15 per cent of them were currently working.

Gardner said there was a “great deal of capacity” in the education system and plans to limit the spread of COVID-19 through a staggered start to the school year had been successful.

“I note that the data that I saw from the middle of last week, I think, had in fact more teachers out in the middle of last week than it did in the middle of this week,” he said.

“Those figures will go up and down to a certain extent depending on not only what’s happening in schools but also what’s happening in the community.

“We’ve got more than 4000 TRTs – temporary relief teachers – who are registered with the department ready to go and up to this stage this year I don’t think we’ve drawn on even 15 per cent of them, or around 15 per cent of them.”

Latest data from the Education Department, accurate as of Friday, shows 230 public school teachers and 151 support workers were isolating due to COVID-19.

Those figures dropped from the day before, when 264 teachers and 191 support workers were in isolation.

The department says 1.4 per cent of students are absent for COVID-related reasons, which represents 2422 students.

Australian Education Union SA president Andrew Gohl told InDaily there were ongoing issues trying to attract relief teachers to country schools and those in Adelaide’s outer suburbs.

He accused the department of “trying to hide the fact that there’s chaos happening in schools”, by asking retired teachers and those on leave to fill relief teaching roles.

“We think this is really the result of the department’s decrease of permanent relief teachers who are employed as permanent teachers whose job is to move around from site to site to fill in these sorts of vacancies,” he said.

“At the moment they’re finding themselves a bit short.”

Gohl said the union had no concerns about asking teachers to come back from leave to fill emergency relief positions, provided they were paid and could use their leave another time.

He said to help fill relief teaching positions in country schools, the Education Department had offered Adelaide-based teachers free flights, accommodation and travel expenses.

“We welcome that tactic, but I just get a sense that you’ve got to be in a unique circumstance as a TRT to have the capacity to drop everything and head down somewhere for two weeks,” he said.

“Not everyone has the capacity for that – a lot of people have family obligations – so that might explain why the lure of extra money and a place to stay is not enough to get people over the line.”

A spokesperson from the Education Department said asking recently-retired teachers to fill relief teaching positions was part of its strategy to help manage any staffing issues that might arise due to the pandemic.

“We are making sure we have as many contingencies in place as possible,” they said.

“Currently the number of SSOs and of teachers recorded as absent for COVID-19-related reasons is steady and manageable.

“Site reporting has indicated between 500 – 550 TRTs (are) on duty on any day covering both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19-absences.”

The spokesperson said it was “normal practice” for it to cover travel expenses when teachers relocate to a country school.

“Where the Department sends people country locations to undertake relief teaching work it covers accommodation, food, beverages, and daily incidentals, as well as paying for mileage if driving or covering airfares,” they said.

– with additional reporting by Jemma Chapman

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