The majority of South Australian teachers who are members of the Australian Education Union (AEU) have voted to strike on the first day of the school term due to COVID-19 health and safety concerns.
School and preschool teacher members were balloted, with almost two-thirds supporting industrial action via a full day stoppage on Wednesday, Feb.2, if COVID-19 safety concerns are not addressed, AEU SA Branch reported on Tuesday.
This comes as the number of active COVID-19 cases in South Australia currently stands at 27,991.
Under the Government’s back-to-school plan, Jan.31 will see the return to school of the most vulnerable students, as well as children of essential workers. Then on Feb.2, pre-school and reception, along with years 1,7,8, and 12 will return, while other levels will start back face-to-face on Feb.14, after two weeks of online learning.
Meanwhile, Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 will be extra preparation days for teachers to get briefed and prepare for online teaching.
“This plan is all about balancing the learning needs of our kids, while also ensure they stay safe,” Premier Steven Marshall said.
Since the vote was put to members, the AEU and South Australian Department for Education (DfE) has been engaged in negotiations on whether the proposed return-to-school measures make the environment safe for staff and students, whether they will slow the spread of Omicron, and whether they are consistent across all sites.
In addition, there is the question of whether or not the measures will address wellbeing and mental health concerns and how the measures will impact workloads.
According to AEU, while some of their concerns have been addressed, others need further discussion.
“The Government and the Department have an obligation to ensure that all learning spaces are safe for children, students and staff and that all reasonable and practicable measures to create safe learning environments have been implemented,” the report said.
The AEU noted that while the health sector has the benefit of full PPE, including N95 masks and face shields, educators will operate in classes of up to 29 students with measures that include at best N95 masks in some situations; social distancing, which will be impossible for many; hand sanitiser; cleaning; and, weather permitting, open windows or the option of conducting classes outside.
On Tuesday, AEU Executive will weigh up the progress made in the negotiations with DfE so far.
“If Executive believes sufficient progress has been made then members will be re-balloted to postpone the action,” the report said.
“Conversely, if Executive is dissatisfied then the action will remain on foot pending any timely additional progress in discussions.”
Meanwhile, Premier Marshall said at a press conference on Tuesday that the government has listened to the experts since day one, and he was hopeful that Tuesday afternoon’s meeting between SA Chief Health Officer Nicola Spurrier and the AEU will go a long way to addressing the union’s concerns.
“We’re in respectful negotiation, the union put I think 18 or 19 issues that they wanted to address with us,” he said.
“We responded to them earlier in the week, they’ve got that information now. I know they’ve got that ballot result there, but of course, that ballot was open well before all of the issues had been finalised, so I’m hopeful that this afternoon we can have a successful meeting … and provide them with all of the information that they require.”
Marshall also said that the state government would be doing everything possible to avert the strike, and noted that not every teacher in the state voted on the union’s ballot.
“The reality is, we have been working with the union for days and days since the ballot opened, and I think that if they balloted again, they would get a different position,” he said.
When asked about issues that Prof. Spurrier will need to address to prevent a strike, Marshall said the main issue is there has been pressure to have surveillance rapid antigen testing.
“There’s just no medical reason for this in South Australia, whatsoever,” he said.
“This has been borne out by the advice we have received from the AHPPC (Australian Health Protection Principal Committee). So look, we’ll go through the reasons why having rapid antigen tests can give a false sense of security unless they’re carried out in a really, sort of controlled way, and we’ll provide that information to the union.”