The ACT’s public school teachers want to be included among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, as the Commonwealth rolls out its vaccination program across Australia from February 2021.
The Australian Education Union ACT Branch Executive has passed a motion requesting the ACT Government negotiate with the Commonwealth for the prioritisation of AEU members in the vaccine rollout.
The motion acknowledges the importance of giving immediate priority for vaccination to workers in frontline health care, aged care, disability care and quarantine and border facilities, but argues that educators also deserve to be recognised.
“The AEU asserts that high priority should also be given to educators due to their high level of collective exposure to millions within the community every day, and their critical importance to society, the economy and the nation’s future prospects, as so clearly demonstrated during the various outbreaks in 2020,” says the motion.
AEU ACT secretary Glenn Fowler said teachers’ reach into the community is so enormous that they should not be forgotten.
“We just want to be on the front foot and say don’t forget us because there is a danger that we will be forgotten,” he said.
“We were forgotten back in March  when the PM and others were talking about people who had essential jobs, and the rhetoric at that time made our members feel they were, to some degree, being martyred to keep schools going, to keep parents being able to work.”
The stand led to the establishment of teaching hubs and a thankfully short stint of remote learning in the ACT, where the COVID-19 virus has never really established a foothold.
Mr Fowler said nobody wants schools to again have to move to home learning.
“We’re concerned we had to really put ourselves on the map back in March, and we want to have our voice at the table as these discussions are being had,” he said.
“There are plenty of other industries that will be putting forward their voice as to why they should be prioritised as well, and that’s legitimate for them to do that.”
Mr Fowler also said that maintaining physical distancing in a school environment is extremely challenging, and while early research into the virus suggested young people were not as vulnerable as others, the emergence of new variants is suggesting that children aren’t as resilient as first thought.
He said vaccinating teachers would ensure schools kept operating and give parents confidence in their children’s education.
“This will reach into so many homes around the country,” said Mr Fowler. “That’s just an extra level of assurance people will have that schools will be safe, and we know that schools have proven to be the engine room of the country – that’s what we learnt last year.”
He denied that teachers are trying to jump the queue.
“For our value to the economy and society, because of the challenges of physical distancing and because of our incredible exposure to the community, we think, alongside all those other essential services, we should be considered,” said Mr Fowler.
“That’s all we’re saying – we’re not trying to kick anybody else down then queue.”
An ACT Government spokesperson said the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has provided preliminary advice on essential workers and other high risk settings, however this is high level and non-prescriptive.
“It does not currently specify teachers in its range of examples,” said the spokesperson. “More detailed ATAGI advice is expected shortly. The ACT Government will ensure the interests of a range of professions, including teachers, that play a critical role to support the community are considered.
While the vaccine is in short supply in the initial phases it will not be possible to vaccinate all occupations. However, vaccine availability will increase during the later stages of 2021 when it is expected more Canberrans will become eligible. We look forward to further ATAGI advice.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the Federal Government is hoping to vaccinate 80,000 Australians a week and four million by the end of March.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration is expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine by the end of January, and it will take a further two weeks for the first shipments of the vaccine to arrive after that.
The target is to vaccinate a minimum 80 per cent of Australians – which is widely viewed as the threshold for herd immunity – by October.