COVID-19 and the 2022 school year
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 127 No 1, 11 February 2022, page no.58
If there is one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is to expect the unexpected. Even as recently as December, it was hard to comprehend the concept of more than 10,000 cases per day in Queensland. But thanks to the emergence of the Omicron variant, that is the reality we faced at the start of the school year.
The QTU continues to negotiate with the department and Queensland Government around school and TAFE operations, with member health and safety, workload and general wellbeing at the forefront.
Adjustment to the school year
In early January, the state government announced plans to delay the start of face-to-face learning until 7 February, with year 11 and 12 students starting online learning from 31 January. It also announced plans to extend the school year by one week in December.
The QTU welcomed the delayed start of the school year to avoid schools operating at full capacity during the predicted peak of the Omicron outbreak. However, we rejected the need to extend the school year and began immediate negotiations with the government and department to resolve this. The QTU reached an agreement with the government which saw the additional week scrapped and local arrangements put in place enabling schools to modify their curriculum delivery to ensure students accessed appropriate learning in the condensed school year.
After lengthy negotiations with Queensland Health and a range of stakeholders, including the QTU, the state government released its Back to School plan on 30 January. The plan included specific restrictions for the first four weeks of the school year, including:
- restricting large gatherings
- restricting parental access to school sites (with the exception of parents and carers of prep, year 1 and some vulnerable students)
- restricting some activities such as school excursions and camps
- provision of masks to all schools (including masks for students from year 3 to 6 in primary schools)
- provision of rapid antigen test kits to schools for allocation to symptomatic staff and students
- provision of rapid antigen test kits for staff returning to remote communities
- priority testing at QHealth community testing sites for school staff and students
- ventilation and air quality testing in schools.
The plan can be found at https://qed.qld.gov.au/covid19/back-to-school
The QTU continues to negotiate and clarify elements of the plan and other COVID-19 related issues associated with school operations.
Members with questions can contact QTAD on 1300117823 or firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2021, the QTU formed a position on mandatory vaccination which was endorsed by QTU State Council in November. The position confirmed that any employer mandate would be challenged industrially and legally, but that if a mandate formed part of a Chief Health Officer direction, the QTU would advise members to comply with it unless they had a valid medial exemption.
This position was developed while many members were calling for early access to vaccination and took into consideration implementation and challenges of employer and CHO health directions in other jurisdictions and industries. It also followed lengthy negotiations on behalf of vulnerable members during the past two years, which saw them granted access to special quarantine and special pandemic leave.
The QTU’s primary concern remains the health and safety of members. Our following of the Chief Health Officer’s advice forms part of this approach. Along the way, the QTU has negotiated numerous changes and improvements to department policy, which would not have been possible without our status as a registered trade union with the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission and the backing of all of our members.
2022 and beyond
The QTU will continue to monitor the Back to School plan and will ensure that the learnings from the pandemic are applied, making all of our workplaces safer. This could include negotiating permanent changes to standard departmental policy related to:
- school cleaning (hours and processes such as high touch points etc)
- safe hand hygiene (access to tissues, hand soap, paper towel and hand sanitiser)
- staff and students staying away from school when unwell
- appropriate provision of personal protective equipment
- facilities management (including ventilation and air quality).