Australian teachers plead for delayed school start as country faces COVID-19 peak

NSW and Victoria are forging on to get students back to school on schedule, but teachers in those states feel their voices have been ignored as COVID-19 cases remain at high levels.

Many teachers across the east coast eel uneasy resuming school in a few weeks as the states continue to battle high COVID-19 rates.

Many teachers across the east coast feel uneasy resuming face-to-face learning as the states continue to battle alarming COVID-19 rates. Source: AAP

Melbourne-based secondary teacher Rosalie Steward is mentally preparing herself to brave school classrooms as Australia experiences an unprecedented wave of COVID-19 infections.

She's one among the thousands of teachers who are reeling at the thought of increased workloads they will inevitably face as rising COVID-19 cases force staff to isolate at home.

Ms Steward is frustrated that the government hasn't heeded the concerns of teachers who feel unsafe and overwhelmed entering school grounds during the outbreak.

Melbourne high school teacher Rosalie Steward.
Source: Supplied/Rosalie Steward

"Ideally, we have a government ... that makes decisions in consultation with representatives from every single sector, not based simply on economics or convenience, " she said.

"To rush forward without any regard or respect for the education sector, which is a unique one, seems at best disrespectful and at worst dangerous."

'Nightmare, unsustainable'

She's stressed thinking about the increased workload that will pile onto the desks of teachers as staff shortages continue to affect workplaces, particularly in NSW and Victoria.

Taking on extra periods to cover staff absences, wrangling to obtain more relief teachers, and ensuring unwell students remain on top of their studies via email are just some of the struggles Ms Steward has on her radar for Term 1.

"Expectations of schools just cannot be the same, we just can't dive straight into it, particularly now," she said.

"It's going to be unsustainable. It's not going to be good for anyone.

"Many students, many teachers away, logistically that's a nightmare. It's going to be ridiculous."

No delays

Despite teachers' fears, both NSW and Victorian governments are insistent face-to-face learning in the classroom will not be delayed in 2022 and students will return on 1 February.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said NSW and Victoria are working closely together due to their "very similar situations" to create a plan that will ensure school environments are COVID-safe.

"We are completely committed to getting schools open day one, term one, in a way that is safe for students and for teachers," he said.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet.
Source: AAP

He said the plan is being finalised alongside the Department of Education and NSW Health and will be submitted at the next National Cabinet meeting next week.

If approved, the findings will be made public by Thursday.

A NSW Department of Education spokesperson said schools will be made COVID-safe "through a combination of physical distancing, mask wearing, strict hygiene practices and frequent cleaning of schools".

"Rapid antigen test kits will also form a significant part of the Department’s plan to ensure COVID-safe school settings," they added.

In a statement to SBS News, Victoria's Education Minister James Merlino said his government supports the National Cabinet's decision to push forward with starting the school year with face-to-face learning on 1 February.

"Our school workforce and students over 12 have done an amazing job getting vaccinated quickly to protect their school communities – and we expect families to be just as keen to protect their younger children ahead of Term 1," he said.

The Victorian government is undertaking a major overhaul of its education facilities' ventilation systems ahead of the 2022 school year.

On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the head of the prime minister's department had been working with state and territories with the aim of a "day one, term one" start.

Following the National Cabinet meeting on Thursday, Mr Morrison said it was "essential" schools go back.

"It is absolutely essential for schools to go back safely and to remain safely open if we are not to see any further exacerbation of the workforce challenges we’re currently facing," he said.

"It’s very important [schools] go back. And the health advice is they can go back."

But NSW Teachers Federation President Angelo Gavrielatos has expressed disappointment with the government, saying teachers haven't been included in the conversation.

"What was delivered ... was not a national plan but a set of incoherent slogans. Not one target has been set with regards to the risk mitigation strategies needed in this environment," he wrote on Twitter.

The Australian Education Union has also expressed concern about how schools will go back, with President Correna Haythorpe saying schools could become significant super-spreader environments.

But Ms Steward harbours fears that there hasn't been enough time for students aged 5 to 11 to get double vaccinated before Term 1 kicks off.

Children aged five to 11 have been authorised to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 shot from 10 January, leaving only three weeks for primary school students to get a single vaccine.

"Young people are very good at surviving the virus, they are also very good at spreading it," she said.

"To know that you are working closely - and you do work closely with this with these children - with potentially unvaccinated young people is a worrying thought."

She conceded that remote learning isn't an ideal way to begin the new schooling year - and understands more than anyone the challenges of stunting teacher and student creativity.

But if a two-week delay means a higher vaccine uptake before classrooms reach full capacity, Ms Steward said she would much prefer that option "for peace of mind".

Despite calls by Mr Morrison for all states and territories to remain unified in the decision to return, Queensland and South Australia have pushed back the resumption of face-to-face learning by two weeks.

"It is not desirable to have our children back starting school during the peak of this wave," Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said last week.

"This is a delay but a necessary delay because of the wave that Queensland will be experiencing."

In NSW, 6.5 per cent of the age-group population have received a first dose of the vaccine, while 78 per cent of children aged 12-15 are double vaccinated.

Published 14 January 2022 at 3:57pm
By Rayane Tamer
Source: SBS News