An unnamed Canberra public school has been referred to WorkSafe ACT after teachers expressed concerns for their own and student safety due to high levels of COVID-induced teacher absences.
The ACT branch of the Australian Education Union made a formal complaint to the regulator on Thursday after the school’s sub-branch passed a motion calling for assistance.
AEU ACT branch secretary Patrick Judge said it was the union’s preference that schools move to remote learning if it became impossible to provide a safe face-to-face teaching environment.
“This is also consistent with the Education Directorate’s policies,” Mr Judge said.
A spokesperson for WorkSafe ACT confirmed it received a complaint from the union.
“WorkSafe ACT will respond to this complaint in the same manner as it responds to all complaints. Appropriate enquiries will be undertaken by the inspectorate and we will make no further comment on this matter,” a WorkSafe ACT spokesperson said.
Mr Judge said he wanted to see teachers and students at this particular school kept safe, whether by employing additional staffing resources or moving to partial or full remote learning.
“They’ve obviously come to a critical point when they are writing to us saying they are concerned for their safety and the safety of their students,” he said.
Macgregor Primary School in Belconnen yesterday became the first school in the ACT to move to ‘level three’ of the directorate’s COVID-19 staffing absence plan.
Year 4 to 6 students at that school will undertake remote learning until next Friday, which is the last day of term, while younger students will remain on-campus.
Any students who cannot learn from home will also still be able to attend campus.
Mr Judge said it’s not unreasonable to expect other schools in the Territory to be impacted by COVID-induced staffing shortages, particularly as the winter months arrive.
Health authorities have repeatedly warned of the potential for a simultaneous spike in both influenza and COVID-19 cases this winter.
Yesterday, Minister for Education Yvette Berry said she was surprised that it had taken so long for a school to move to remote learning this year given the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in the community.
She said she wouldn’t rule out more schools having to make similar moves in the coming weeks and months.
“We can’t predict what’s going to happen next week or day to day in fact, but we’re ready for it if that needs to be the case,” Ms Berry said.
At the start of the school year, the directorate proposed a staged plan to manage teacher absences.
According to the plan, level one shortages can be dealt with using casual staff and existing staff members.
Under level two, schools have access to a centrally managed pool of casual staff.
Level three staff shortages mean a temporary transition to remote learning for part of the school. Level four sends an entire school into remote learning.
But the teacher shortage already existed at both a national and local level, even before the pandemic.
The ACT Government has set up a dedicated task force to examine what’s going on, but Mr Judge said earlier this week this had run into “challenges” due to a lack of available data.
The directorate has not assessed where teachers will be needed, despite student enrolment data being available.
“It is a mystery to the AEU as to why we do not have projections for what number of staff we need, the teaching staff we need, and in what specialisations we need them,” Mr Judge told a committee inquiry into teaching quality in the ACT.
It’s hoped this data will be available by the end of the year.