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Rethink Year 12 return – an open letter to the NSW Premier

Since the NSW government’s announcement that HSC students and school staff would return to school on August 16, the Independent Education Union of Australia, NSW Branch (IEU) has been inundated with questions and concerns from principals, teachers and support staff – none of whom were consulted about a decision that impacts them.

The Independent Education Union, which represents 32,000 school staff throughout NSW and the ACT, calls for an immediate rethink based on a clear assessment of the risks school staff in primary and high schools face. Government decisions concerning the operation of schools must be based on health advice and made in consultation with school staff and their unions.

The President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Omar Khorshid, has expressed strong reservations about Year 12 returning to schools. “There is no need for the additional risk of bringing Year 12 back to school, bringing teachers back to school, putting those teachers at risk, putting the families of those teachers, the other staff, the cleaners, the people in the canteens and, of course, the families of Year 12 students themselves [at risk],” Dr Khorshid said on Friday. “We call on the NSW Government to revisit that decision.” The IEU supports the AMA’s call.

There is a huge discrepancy between the health directives applied to the general community and sending Year 12s back to school, particularly as case numbers are still stubbornly high. On the one hand, the NSW Government is strictly minimising movement among the community, while on the other, mobilising 50,000 Year 12 students to go back to school. This can only exacerbate risk.

Given the extreme contagiousness of the Delta virus, schools can no longer be exempt from the rules that apply to other workplaces. Schools should not become the next hotspots, as we have witnessed in Queensland over the weekend of July 31/ August 1.

Dr Peter Webster, the Principal of St John XXIII Catholic Learning Community at Stanhope Gardens (in the Blacktown LGA), is deeply concerned. His school has 1856 students from preschool to Year 12, and 188 staff – it is the size of a small town. “Before exams, before learning, the first duty of a principal is to provide a safe environment for their staff and students,” Dr Webster told the IEU. “With the current government advice, we are not able to have our Year 12s return and fulfil that duty.”

It is impossible for school staff and Year 12 students to be vaccinated fully by August 16. Some students may refuse vaccination and staff are struggling to access vaccines. Over the weekend, many have had their vaccinations cancelled and redirected to students. Plans have been released to allow for priority vaccination of school staff in only three of the eight local government areas that are subject to the strictest lockdown rules.

We call on the Premier to talk to teachers and their unions about any return to the workplace.

Authorised by Mark Northam, Branch Secretary, IEUA NSW/ACT

The IEUA NSW/ACT Branch represents over 32,000 teachers, principals and support staff in Catholic and independent schools, early childhood centres and post-secondary colleges.

Editor’s note: The NSW Teachers Federation also says the health and safety of its members must come first. See its media release “HSC return to school plan must reflect health advice” published on July 28 here. On August 5, the federation and the IEUA issued a joint media release, read it here.

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