QTU members and COVID-19: together we'll get through
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 125 No 5, 10 July 2020, page no.18
One of the core roles of any Union is to work to ensure that members have a healthy and safe work environment. Consequently, the health and safety (and wellbeing) of teachers, principals, staff and students has been the continuing and absolute priority of the QTU.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, members were expected to attend school on a daily basis, despite their heightened concerns for themselves and their families' wellbeing.
In spite of constant amendments to restrictions, including the reduction of numbers in social gatherings, closing places of mass gatherings, social distancing measures, and panic buying that left the shelves empty, the Prime Minister and National Cabinet insisted that schools were safe, leaving members feeling unnoticed, unheard and exposed.
Throughout this unprecedented time, during which state schools were at the forefront of the response, we listened and we responded.
In applying the WHS principles, it was relatively easy to identify the hazard – in this case it was COVID-19 (and the potential for community transmission within schools). We then called for a health and safety response using the hierarchy of controls:
Here’s how your Union protected for you
Elimination: a duty to eliminate the ridk where it is possible to do so
- The QTU persuaded the Chief Health Officer (CHO) to release advice about the operation of schools, which stopped mass gatherings at schools, including parent-teacher interviews and school assemblies, and switched the focus to cleaning and hygiene.
- The QTU prompted a health directive to be issued enabling schools to send unwell students home or refuse to allow them to attend.
Substitution: Could a hazard giving rise to the risk of spreading COVID-19 be substituted for something less hazardous?
- The QTU negotiated a week of student free days in Week 10, Term 1 to prepare for remote learning.
- The QTU worked with the department to develop a clear set of Term 2 guidelines to help schools and members provide remote learning for the first five weeks of term.
- The QTU secured support for members from the department for those members impacted by quarantine measures at the end of the Autumn school holidays, allowing for a safe return to community and continued delivery of learning to students.
Isolation: Could a hazard giving rise to the risk of spreading COVID-19 be isolated from people to prevent exposure?
- The QTU called for the immediate closure of schools as the pandemic escalated.
- The QTU supported vulnerable workers so that they could access flexible working arrangements or special pandemic/quarantine leave.
- The QTU ensured the guidelines required the cessation of face to face meetings.
- The QTU ensured social distancing measures for adults were employed in schools, including blocking access to schools of non-essential adults and the development by the department of a ready calculator to help schools to identify social distancing limits in schools.
Administrative: What types of administrative controls could minimise the risk of COVID-19 within schools?
- The QTU played a leading role in the development of the Special Pandemic Leave Directive.
- The QTU sought the intervention of the CHO to amend the home confinement health directive so teachers could travel from their place of work to their home base over the school holidays.
- The QTU ensured payments were made to supply teachers affected by the move to student free days at the end of Term 1.
- The QTU pushed for a rethink of assessment and reporting.
- The QTU advocated for members to be treated consistently with other essential workers so that they could leave bio-security restricted areas during the school holidays.
- The QTU developed resources to advise and support members to avoid the pitfalls during remote learning.
- The QTU contributed to the development of guidelines for the recommencement of school sport.
- The QTU contributed to the review and updating of operating guidelines as students returned to learning at school, including support for these guidelines with the development of safety signs.
Personal protective equipment: What personal protective equipment (PPE) can/should be used to help minimise the risk of spreading the virus within the workplace?
- The QTU secured additional PPE and guidelines for members working within special school settings.
- The QTU utilised the principles of WHS to ensure that members were safe at work by escalating issues relating to hygiene and cleaning to central office.
- The QTU called for and received additional cleaning hours for all school sites.