Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 126 No 2, 12 March 2021, page no. 8
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 represented one of the most challenging years for teachers and school leaders in the history of Queensland. Through all the challenges, however, state schools managed to deliver continuous education, in a variety of modes, enabling Queensland students to continue their learning during a lengthy period of community lockdown.
At each step of the way, the QTU continued to advocate for resourcing and processes that could allow schools to continue to operate while ensuring that the workplace health and safety of QTU members was at the forefront of all departmental operational decisions. This included:
- negotiating a student free week in Week 10, Term 1, 2020, to assist with planning for a transition to remote learning during the Term 2 community lockdown
- ensuring that QTU members who were vulnerable or who lived with vulnerable people could access special pandemic leave
- negotiating additional cleaning hours to ensure that high touch points in all schools were cleaned multiple times each school day
- ensuring that schools had adequate hand washing facilities and hand sanitiser to maximise hand health
- negotiating protocols for members to leave and return from biosecurity declared communities
- negotiating, on a weekly basis, adjustments to the COVID-19 Operating Guidelines for State Schools.
Prior to the start of the 2021 school year, the local government areas of Brisbane, Ipswich, Moreton Bay and Redlands faced yet another lockdown. This event coincided with the department’s replacing its COVID-19 Operating Guidelines for State Schools with a COVID Safe Industry Plan. The plan included a four-level decision-making matrix to assist schools with managing future community cases. The QTU was consulted on the industry plan and provided feedback prior to its release. A copy of the decision-making matrix can be found here: https://qed.qld.gov.au/aboutus/newsandmedia/Documents/qed-industry-plan-2021-state-schools.pdf
The Queensland Government, on the advice of the Chief Health Officer, determined that future community lockdowns will likely be isolated to postcodes or local government areas rather than the whole state. With the current rollout of several COVID-19 vaccines, there is hope that further community transmission and lockdowns will be limited.
The federal government has determined that teachers and school leaders will be eligible for vaccination in Phase 2B, which is the fourth phase of its five-phase rollout. The QTU continues to advocate for all QTU members who work in special schools, hospital schools, youth detention centres and biosecurity declared communities to be moved forward from Phase 2B (fourth phase) to Phase 1B (second phase), given they work directly with some of the most vulnerable young people in our state.
The QTU has also advocated for the remaining teachers and school leaders to be moved from Phase 2B to Phase 2A (third phase), given the essential nature of education in our community.
We will continue discussions with the department and the Queensland Government to ensure that QTU members interests are considered in relation to the Queensland rollout of the vaccination program.
What can we take from our experiences during the pandemic?
Across the past 12 months we have faced many challenges in dealing with employer and community expectations in terms of school operations and remote learning. However, the pandemic has also lifted the consideration of workplace health and safety in schools to a more conscious level, from the Minister and Director-General down to regions and schools.
The combination of appropriate hand health with hand washing facilities and hand sanitizer, combined with social distancing and additional cleaning, has led to a reduction is all viruses being passed on in schools. However, the most important change to school culture in the past 12 months was the expectation that staff and students who are ill should not attend their workplace or school. This change has reduced the transmission of both rhinovirus (the common cold) and influenza significantly. The viral flu was almost completely irradicated from our community during 2020.
It is critical that, as a profession, we demand a safe workplace from our employer. This must include ongoing access to the increased hygiene products (hand sanitiser, hand soap and tissues etc) in every school, additional cleaning of high touch points, and an ongoing commitment that ill staff and student do not attend. We also need to ensure that accessing sick leave is not harder than showing up to work sick. If we achieve these things, our workplaces will be healthier and safer and member wellbeing will be improved. This can be the positive legacy of one of the most challenging periods our profession has faced.