Protecting you from COVID-19: The story so far...
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 123 No 3, 11 May 2020, page no. 10
It's been an unprecedented few weeks for the Queensland's state school system, with the situation seemingly changing on a daily basis. Here QTU Deputy General Secretary Kate Ruttiman looks back on an action-packed period.
Just over 10 weeks ago, March State Council received a report on the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, most members were shaking their heads at the panic buying of toilet paper and were responding cautiously to the increasing reports of the virus within the community.
When the National Cabinet introduced restrictions to limit the number of people at mass gatherings to 100, the restrictions started to impact on schools. Within a week, these restrictions had increased to limit the number of people at funerals and weddings, require the closure of restaurants, pubs, gyms and salons, and to advise that those who could should work from home.
The irony was that, even while all of these things were happening, National Cabinet continued to say that schools were safe. And when the Prime Minister made a sweeping statement that an essential worker was anyone who had a job, members began to feel that they were being used as over qualified baby sitters.
In response to the pandemic, the QTU has sought to balance three priorities: the health and safety of staff and students; continued learning in different forms; and supporting the work of other front-line workers. The health and safety (and wellbeing) of teachers, principals, staff and students is a continuing and absolute priority of the QTU.
From early March, the QTU was involved in the development of the Special Pandemic Leave Directive and unpacking what state government announcements such as the cancelling of all interstate and overseas travel meant for members.
In mid-March, following QTU advocacy, the Chief Health Officer released advice about the operation of schools during COVID-19. This included advice about ceasing mass gatherings at schools, including parent-teacher interviews and school assemblies. The advice required an enhanced focus on cleaning and hygiene. To ensure additional hygiene products and cleaning was available in schools, the QTU called on the state government to enhance regular school allocations. The government announced the provision of additional cleaning on 19 March.
At the same time, some parents began self-isolating their children, pressuring schools for materials so they could learn from home. As these numbers swelled, the QTU secured the agreement of the department that, in these circumstances of voluntary self-isolation, teachers were not required to provide students with material for learning from home – their focus was to be on the students in their classrooms.
The QTU continued to negotiate with the department to ensure that the advice of the Chief Health Officer (CHO) that vulnerable workers or those living with vulnerable people should self-isolate and work from home was followed, without having to use sick leave.
Mid-March also saw the state government realise that schools could not operate on a “business as usual” basis.
When National Cabinet extended the social restrictions but argued that schools should remain open, it became obvious that it had not listened to the teacher unions and had made their members feel expendable.
This, along with the department’s inability to keep pace with the need for cleaning materials and the continued attendance at school of obviously unwell children despite the CHO advice, prompted QTU Executive to call for the immediate closure of schools.
This resulted in swift action from the government. Following a meeting with the CHO, a health directive was issued that enabled schools to send unwell students home or refuse to allow them to attend. In response to the QTU’s call for schools to be closed to students, some members met to consider what steps they needed to take to ensure their own and their students’ safety in their schools in the face of a lack of cleaning supplies, while special schools called for PPE and other hygiene products, adding to the pressure on the state government. Following a week of negotiations, the Queensland Government agreed to a week of student free days in week 10 Term 1. The only compromise was that students of essential workers and those who were vulnerable needed to attend school (for supervision only).
The consequent move to remote schooling was not without issues. Designing learning materials that could accommodate online and paper-based learning had significant workload impacts. The continued pressure on school leaders from parents and politicians to allow students who fell outside the permitted categories was immeasurable.
Then schools in western and remote Queensland were pressured by their communities to limit the travel of teachers over the school holidays. The QTU once again sought the intervention of the CHO. The amendment to the home confinement health directive meant that teachers travelling from their place of work to their home base was allowed.
However, local communities added complexities by attempting to put in place their own requirements for self-isolation/quarantine of teachers when they returned from holidays. Over the school holidays, the QTU communicated with members in remote Indigenous and regional communities about health checks and quarantine upon their return to community. This included intervention, where necessary, as the “goal posts” changed.
Following QTU advocacy, payments were made to supply teachers affected by the move to student free days at the end of Term 2 – negotiations to support these teachers for the first five weeks of the term continue.
As negotiations over Term 2 school operations continued, the QTU worked with the department to develop a clear set of guidelines to support schools and members. Once it was announced that students would be involved in remote learning for the first five weeks of term and the operating guidelines were released, negotiations continued.
The department’s expectation that learning plans would be modified to focus on five key subjects (English, maths, science, history and PE) and the move to remote learning has required the rethinking of assessment and reporting. These guidelines which can push the reporting timeframes into week 3, were released in week 2 of Term 2.
As this Journal is published, Queensland schools will once again adjust to new operating guidelines, as students in prep and years 1, 11 and 12 return to school two weeks earlier than expected. The social distancing provisions from mid-March and the health and hygiene provisions remain in place. Vulnerable teachers (or those living with vulnerable people) are required to continue to self-isolate and work from home. Work continues to address concerns of members including the issues raised by teaching principals in relation to the amended guidelines.
The QTU is involved in daily meetings with the Department of Education, meets regularly with the Education Minister and has meetings at least twice a week with DoE Human Resources and Facilities.
Deputy General Secretary (Member Services)