QTU continues to meet COVID-19 challenge
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 126 No 6, 3 September 2021, page no.10
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to provide challenges in the community and in government decision-making about school operations, the QTU will maintain its advocacy on behalf of teachers and school leaders to ensure they are safe at work and their health, wellbeing and workload is always front and centre in ongoing negotiations with the Department of Education and the state government.
The recent outbreak of the Delta strain of COVID-19 across the globe has again provided a focus on the importance of protecting all school staff as frontline workers. As a direct result of ongoing advocacy by the QTU, the Queensland Chief Health Officer (CHO), Dr Jeanette Young, agreed to move teachers, school leaders and all other school staff up into phase 1b of the vaccination roll out. We had been calling for this to occur since mid-2020 and raised it through national and state union peak bodies and directly with government as schools continued to deliver educational services to the community, both remotely from their workplaces and directly at school for the vulnerable students and children of essential workers.
We should celebrate this sensible and overdue decision. Many members have contacted the QTU expressing anxiety about the prospect of working throughout the pandemic without access to vaccination. We had an initial win earlier this year when we secured the agreement of the government to provide vaccinations to teachers, school leaders and other school staff working in hospital school settings, youth detention facilities and identified remote communities. Providing access to vaccinations for all school staff was always going to be required as we progressed through the challenges the pandemic has posed.
We continue to advocate for our members in TAFE to also be moved into phase 1b of the vaccination program. This is critical particularly because of the number of VET-in-schools and on-campus programs our TAFE members deliver to school-aged students.
Two weeks prior to the community transmission of the Delta strain in the western suburbs of Brisbane and the most recent lockdown of a large number of local government areas, the QTU was engaged in lengthy negotiations about the amendment of the department’s COVID-19 procedures for schools. This was in response to the worrying trend of cases of community transmission in New South Wales. The positive cases of transmission in the community, the much higher contagiousness of the Delta strain, and the fact that children are more susceptible to contracting that variant, all meant there was a need to look at how we work and what processes we have in place in our workplaces.
The decision to mandate mask wearing for all adults working in schools and all high school students also presented a new challenge in our workplaces. Members raised concerns both from a health and safety perspective about voice strain and the impact on pedagogy and general communication in the classroom. The QTU called upon the department to provide advice and support to members on how best to deal with this new requirement. We continue to investigate how this can be managed in the event that such a requirement is extended.
The hard border closure with NSW has again presented challenges for a large number of workplaces in areas of the state adjacent to our southern border. The QTU wrote to the Premier and CHO expressing our disappointment at the declaration that teachers and school leaders were not “essential workers” in the context of the border crossing protocols. We have been working to support these members and their schools as they deal with the inability to physically attend their workplaces for a number of weeks. At the time of writing, the QTU was engaging in ongoing departmental and whole of government negotiations about the support these members and their schools will receive in the event that the hard border closure remains in place for a lengthy period of time.
The past 18 months have been among the most challenging and disjointed for schools and the delivery of education in living memory. QTU members have demonstrated professionalism and resilience as they negotiated their way through transitions in and out of remote learning and changes to restrictions and operating guidelines, all while maintaining as much normality for students as possible. This has been particularly challenging for teachers of senior subjects in high schools, who have also had to manage changes in the new secondary assessment process.
Everyone should be proud of the work that has been achieved across this time.
We will potentially face lockdowns again. This will be hanging over us all until the vaccination rates across the community increase to at least the 80 per cent level agreed to by the National Cabinet. QTU members can be confident that in the face of these challenges, their Union will always be negotiating and advocating in their best interest. For proof, look at the planning days secured early in the pandemic, additional hygiene processes such as cleaning of schools during the day, supply of hand sanitiser for classrooms, social distancing procedures and provision of masks.
Most importantly, there has been the successful negotiation of special pandemic leave and special quarantine leave for vulnerable employees and those required to isolate awaiting testing results respectively. This, coupled with the ongoing expectations that staff and students who are ill should stay away from the workplace and get tested, shows that QTU members’ health, safety and wellbeing have always been at the forefront of our advocacy.
The pandemic has also been a unique demonstration of the need for collectivism in addressing complex challenges. The QTU, as the industrial and professional voice of 48,000 teachers, school leaders and TAFE educators across the state, has been at the forefront in both representing members’ interests and influencing departmental and government responses to the pandemic. That collective strength gives us the capacity to influence key decisions in real time, and not be simply reactive after the fact. This is what a real Union looks like, and the support members have been able to provide each other in these challenging times is why the QTU remains strong and effective.
If you need advice about the current COVID-19 restrictions, school procedures or the impact of the current border closure, please contact your local QTU Regional Organiser or call or email the Queensland Teachers’ Assist Desk (QTAD) on 1300117823 or email@example.com