The epidemic and the pandemic
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 126 No 7, 8 October 2021, page no.12
The impact of COVID-19 on teachers, principals, students and communities is often framed by decision makers as a roadmap with rolling, future-focused phases. We are less frequently reminded that Queensland teachers have expertly navigated pandemics before.
The QTU’s Lawrence Grulke Library contains a large collection of our Union’s archival history, including Journals dating back to 1895. In 1919, Volume 23 No. 24 of the Queensland Education Journal (QEJ), as it was then known, reported on the impact of the Influenza epidemic. Notwithstanding the gendered language of the time, the impact of the Influenza epidemic and experiences of our profession from more than a century ago, resonate today.
At the time of writing, health measures taken in Queensland have prevented the impact of COVID-19 as it has been experienced in NSW and Victoria. In 1919, the QEJ reported: “Having once gained a footing in Queensland, Influenza appears to have spread to even the most distant parts of the state with somewhat startling rapidity.”
In June 1919, when that edition of the QEJ hit the stands, Queensland’s Health Commissioner had made the decision to close schools and QEJ reported schools were “likely to be at a standstill till the end of July.”
At the time, there were differing views as to whether schools should have remained open, but the QEJ points out, “Those teachers who rail at the health authorities over this matter should remember that they resent interference with the decision of the teaching matters in which they themselves are the experts.”
More than a century later, the QTU maintains health advice related to the COVID-19 pandemic needs to be determined by health experts. Enacting such advice in schools and TAFE requires input from the teaching profession, and the QTU has participated in briefings with health authorities, consulted and advocated with education decision makers since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The QEJ article then considers the educational disadvantage that the Influenza epidemic was having on student learning. The QEJ pushes back against those members of the community, including parents, who were concerned about students making up lost ground. It observed: “Some parents, probably a very large proportion of them, would like to see the schools reopened merely to get the children off their hands for the greater part of the day.”
In 2021, teachers have been essential workers and Queensland schools have afforded parents the time to undertake paid employment and keep the economy open. As the 1919 edition of the QEJ states several times in various ways, “we must not open up that thorny question, largely an economic one, just now.”
On the issue of educational disadvantage and making up lost ground, the QEJ asked the rhetorical question, “Are we not in danger of making a fetish of this reaching of a certain standard by a certain age?” Over a century later, the QTU shares similar concerns on political agendas of standardisation like learning progressions.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the QTU has continued to highlight the dedication of Queensland’s teaching profession and the commitment of teachers and school leaders throughout the state to their students, their families and communities. To conclude this article, we revisit and reaffirm the sentiments of our colleagues during the Influenza epidemic. “In conclusion, we would like to place on record the services of teachers in helping combat the epidemic. Eagerly and unanimously have they responded to the suggestion that they help in any way they could … We are proud to lift our hat to them all.”