By Beth Muldoon, Mary Merkenich, George Lilley and Bonnie Zuidland
On our first day back with our students after the school holidays, Wednesday the 15th of April, teachers listened cautiously to Scott Morrison’s video message to us: “I want teachers to know, from me, both as a parent, and as a Prime Minister, just how appreciated you are and how important the job is that you’re doing right now.”
Straight away, something didn’t add up. If we are so important, why is this the first we are hearing from you? Why have we just begun Term 2 without the resources and arrangements we need to maximise safety for our students, their families, and all school staff?
In Victoria, our State Government has thankfully gone some way to creating appropriate conditions for teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last Tuesday the 7th of April, we were notified: students who can learn from home must, while those who cannot be supervised at home may continue to attend school; no school staff can be compelled to work on-site; class sizes must be limited to a maximum of 10 students; and any student who would otherwise be unable to access an online curriculum will be provided with a device and internet connection.
However, even in Victoria, the holes in these measures are gaping, and neither the State nor Federal Government are stepping up to ensure job security for all school staff or workplace safety provisions to protect our whole community.
Schools in Victoria and around the country still need a guarantee of sufficient hygiene supplies, cleaning regimes, personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff working with students unable to practice physical distancing, and temperature checks for every student each day in the school foyer before being admitted.
Yet, ultimately, the measures that are most needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools, along with many needless deaths, relate to job security and wage protection. The Victorian Government has said that only staff who volunteer to work on-site will make up the skeleton staff required to teach the minority of students who are still attending school. But what about staff employed as casuals, many of whom cannot work remotely, including casual relief teachers, IT support, education support (ES), cleaning and office staff? And what about teachers and ES staff who are working from home but struggling with caring responsibilities?
During this pandemic, all workers should have the choice to stay home to protect their health and the health of their loved ones. Paid leave should be available to all workers who cannot work from home if no alternative duties can be mutually agreed upon. Moreover, paid leave or reduced hours and responsibilities should be available to all workers with caring responsibilities.
Sadly, no government in Australia is talking about granting these provisions to school staff, and the Australian Education Union (AEU), while continuing its negotiations behind closed doors, has so far done little to raise public awareness of our most urgent demands, or articulate the underlying problem of casualisation, which has resulted in nearly one in five teachers also missing out on basic protections, such as sick leave and working from home, during this pandemic.
It is time for the Victorian Government to admit the failure of its bipartisan neoliberal agenda and return to employing all school staff on a permanent full-time or part-time basis, so that our precarious casual staff are able to access the same leave and benefits available to departmental employees during this pandemic and beyond. It is also vital for the Federal Government to extend the Job Keeper payment to over a million workers who have missed out, including the many casual and migrant workers based in our schools.
Scott Morrison has attempted to confuse parents by asserting, “It’s so important that children are able to keep physically going to school, particularly for these kids – the kids of workers with no suitable care arrangements at home to support their learning.” However, it remains important for parents who can keep their children at home to do so, otherwise our schools will be overcrowded once more, putting students, staff and families at risk.
While Morrison claims that the “risk remains very low” for children, reports from around the world show us that children are contracting coronavirus on mass, many require hospital care, and some have died. Moreover, we work in schools with hundreds of adult staff, where hundreds more adults congregate at the end of each school day to pick up their children. Does Morrison expect parents and carers to lead their children straight home without stopping to play at a public playground, understanding that this is not currently safe? And what about all the children and teens who travel to school sandwiched together with other members of the public on buses, trains and trams?
He clearly does not care. His only apparent concern is protecting the profits of his business mates and allies. That’s why he wants people to think it’s safe to send their children to school and return to their workplaces.
And if that wasn’t deplorable enough, he concluded his message to teachers, with an unambiguous threat to scapegoat us if we refuse to play the role of his sacrificial lambs: “We cannot allow a situation where parents are forced to choose between putting food on the table through their employment to support their kids, and their kids’ education. And I know teachers don’t want to force those choices onto parents either. ’Cause of course, thousands of jobs would be lost, livelihoods forsaken.”
No, Prime Minister, teachers are not responsible for your failure to provide income protection to all workers who need it. We do not want any more of your disingenuous compliments. We want job security and safe work conditions for all our co-workers. We want you to prioritise public health over profit.