Around Australia, teachers are fighting to protect public health – by trying to get their schools shut.
A petition written and circulated by teacher and education workers, in conjunction with parents, demands that schools, like all other non-essential services, be shut down with the wage bill covered by employers and the government. Alternative, and safe, child care must be arranged for the children of essential workers.
“At the moment we educators are effectively being told by the Federal Government that we are glorified babysitters, and keeping schools open will keep parents at work,” the petition reads.
“This simply treats workers in schools and in the community, and the students we teach, as collateral damage for the sake of the economy. The schools must shut to save lives!”
But it’s not just the government that has put up resistance to these urgent health measures. The Australian Education Union (AEU) has publicly remained silent on the question of school closures. Teachers report that union officials have told them that the union opposes the demand. The inertia of union leaders increasingly looks like complicity in an impending public health disaster
AEU members in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane told Red Flag that union officials have opposed shutting down the schools. One AEU member described the response:
“I was told that the union will not contradict the Chief Medical Officer despite all the international shutdowns, the petition of doctors and the nurses calling for it."
Many union officials have refused to fight for and health and safety of teachers and staff. They've also refused to visit schools themselves. This has happened across the country. An update on the NSW Teachers Federation website posted on March 18 reads:
"... Federation Officers have also made the decision to not physically attend meetings in workplaces to prevent exposing members to unnecessary contact and it's inherent risk."
The move has been met with outrage. Teachers in Queensland who were met with the same stance from the Queensland Teachers Union (QTU) described it as a "joke":
"So you are looking after QTU organisers and officers by telling them not to visit schools, yet you are telling your members to still go to school! So what is it? If it is too risky for officers and organisers, it is also too risky for teachers and students!"
But the inaction has also stirred teachers into action. Union activists have taken the petition to packed meetings to fight with their colleagues for closures. A teacher in Sydney described their union meeting:
“There were 25 there which made it the biggest meeting they’ve had for years. I brought a motion based on the petition,” the teacher said.
“A couple of people opposed shutting schools, but other teachers responded to them with political arguments. One woman called Scott Morrison a scumbag and another called him a hypocrite.”
“I focused on demanding the NSW Teachers Federation call publicly to close the school. People were livid at the government and the union. It passed overwhelmingly, no one voted against it but three or four abstained.”
Similarly, a teacher from Melbourne reported on their regional meeting of the Australian Education Union:
“About 45 members showed up. Union officials expected less than five. There was a general feeling that teachers are not being valued and are expected to sacrifice their health and the health of their communities,” the teacher said.
“There was almost total agreement on school closures by teachers and educational support staff. Some members expressed their anger at the union response and the union official shrugged and said he would pass it on to the higher ups.”
“I circled the petition, everyone signed and we handed it to the officials.”
A teacher at a different Melbourne school described a meeting where staff began with the lack of even small scale protective measures like soap and disinfectant but quickly moved on to the elephant in the room.
“It was highly attended, the biggest meeting we’ve had in a long time. There seemed to be lots of confusion and concern. One teacher put up a motion to call on the Australian Education Union to demand immediate shut downs,” the teacher said.
“After a discussion where some teachers showed hesitations and concern about shutting down immediately, it was passed unanimously.”
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to close schools for a period.
Teachers' unions in the UK campaigned to demand school closures, and a Facebook event calling for school walkouts by both students and teachers went viral. Johnson ultimately reversed his position, closing schools while arranging measures to ensure workers in vital sectors – like healthcare – could keep working, without being kept home to look after children.
Similar school walkout events have been set up here in conjunction with the petition. The fight is urgent: it’s literally a matter of life and death.