The recent strikes at Queanbeyan and Karabar High Schools have been branded a “very disappointing” disruption to school operations by NSW Minister for Education and Early Learning Sarah Mitchell.
On Tuesday last week (15 March), news broke that both Queanbeyan and Karabar High Schools had moved to a flexible learning arrangement due to a staffing shortage. It was an arrangement in line with other schools across the state deemed ‘COVID-affected’. It meant students in years 7 to 10 would attend in-person classes three days a week, and learn from home the other two days.
However, the Department of Education determined that the school was not COVID-affected as there were no cases among the teaching group, and it was instead the children of staff that caused the shortage.
The department reversed the decisions made by the school administration and students returned to full-time face-to-face learning, much to the dismay of staff.
Queanbeyan High School Teachers Federation representative Mitch Andrews sent a letter to the Education Department on behalf of staff the following day detailing the impact of the staffing shortage at the school since 1 February.
He said there had been 52 hours of merged junior classes, 96 hours of junior classes on minimum supervision, 24 hours of merged senior classes, 8 hours of senior classes on minimum supervision and 115 hours where senior classes were sent to the school library for self-directed learning. He also alleged staff that were working performed an additional 135 hours of teaching duties throughout this period.
“Teacher burnout is real,” wrote Mr Andrews.
“Teachers simply cannot continue to operate in the current situation. The physical and mental health of teachers is declining dramatically. Teacher exhaustion is unsustainable and staff describe themselves as broken.
“If additional teachers are not employed, or flexible learning alternatives are not able to be implemented locally by principals, we fear there will be mass walkouts and resignations.”
In response to the Federation, Department of Education executive director of school performance for the rural south and west directorate Dean White said that the department had taken steps to resolve the staffing shortage, including introducing a $20,000 recruitment bonus on position advertisements with the school.
“The Department is committed to progressing the current recruitment action at the school and is confident that this action will have positive outcomes for both staff and students,” Mr White said.
“A progress report will be provided to Ms Green and the Queanbeyan High School staff in relation to recruitment early next week.”
Mr Andrews noted that the teachers were “extremely disheartened and frustrated” by the response and again demanded the implementation of mixed-mode delivery for the remainder of the term.
“This mixed-mode delivery proposal has been inexplicably rejected, leaving us with the ongoing reality of collapsed classes, compromised teaching and learning experiences, increased student wellbeing concerns, and serious impacts on authentic assessment and learning progress,” Mr Andrews wrote.
“Numerous schools across the state have implemented mixed learning delivery to support quality teaching and learning, so why not us?”
He went on to threaten further industrial action should “an acceptable response” not be received by Monday (28 March).
Yesterday (24 March), teachers at Karabar High School went on strike, also seeking a return to flexible learning.
Karabar High School Teachers Federation representative Wendy Leed said that the flexible learning arrangement “worked really well” and created high morale among staff.
Ms Leed warned that staff are “at breaking point” following the forced return to full-time face-to-face learning.
“We want to be with the students, we want to be in front of classrooms, but we can’t do that at the moment because there are so many merged classes and extra classes that we have to teach that it’s just impossible to help students and give quality education,” she said.
“We walked off to support the need for more teachers in our classrooms.”
In response to the strikes at the Queanbeyan schools, Minister for Education Sarah Mitchell said it was “very disappointing that union members at Queanbeyan and Karabar High Schools are further disrupting school operations”.
“2200 schools across the state are continuing to provide face-to-face learning through the current increase in COVID cases across the state. I am incredibly grateful for the hard work of these teachers who know we need our kids in the classroom because that is where they learn best,” she said.
“Our updated COVID response for schools released yesterday is backed up by health advice, and the Department is working at a local level to support flexible measures at individual schools including Queanbeyan and Karabar.”