Teachers in NSW are urging officials to introduce stricter COVID-19 protocols, as some would ‘sooner resign’ than risk their lives

Teachers in NSW are urging officials to introduce stricter COVID-19 protocols, as some would ‘sooner resign’ than risk their lives
Teachers across the country are terrified to return to classrooms. In NSW, they are readying themselves for ‘a big unknown’. Photo: Getty Images
  • Teachers in NSW have branded a return to school under current settings “unfair”, as Omicron cases continue to rise.
  • One teacher told Business Insider Australia that the state should brace for chaos as scores of teachers are tipped to fall out of the workforce.
  • Angelo Gavrielatos, president of the NSW Teachers Federation, told Business Insider Australia that state and federal policymakers had committed more energy to slogans than they had to planning.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Teachers across Australia are counting down the days before they have to return to classrooms, likely in the same way they left them at the end of last year: “underpaid,” “understaffed,” and “unsupported” by state and federal policymakers.

The sentiment landed with Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who on Sunday opted to push back the beginning of Term 1 by two weeks. She said it was too risky for children, most of whom remain unvaccinated, to return to school as Omicron case numbers are expected to peak.

Other leaders shrugged it off, betting instead that a “Jabs for Juniors” program beholden to familiar, if not reliable supply shortages and booking infrastructure hiccups, will go off without a hitch. 

In New South Wales, the dread is material. Premier Dominic Perrottet on Sunday doubled down on his government’s plan to force bodies back into classrooms, when he told reporters that a full return to schools across the state on January 28 was “non-negotiable,” given his cabinet had just shelled out for 50 million rapid antigen tests. 

“We are finalising our back-to-school plans at the moment. This will be a core part of the plans getting kids back in the classrooms,” Perrottet said Sunday. 

“There will be challenges as we move through the return-to-school program but ultimately we can’t let perfection be the enemy of good. We need kids back in class.”

A handful of teachers who spoke to Business Insider Australia, on the condition of anonymity, said the state should brace for chaos, as hundreds, if not thousands of teachers are tipped to fall out of the workforce, whether by way of infection, resignation, or sheer exhaustion. 

“It will probably be the most chaotic school year that we’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic,” said one primary school teacher based in Sydney’s Inner West. “It would just be easier if we could have a delayed start, to give students more time to get vaccinated and make more of a plan.”

“I’m actually infuriated,” she said. 

As it stands, only teachers are required, by federal mandate, to have had all shots of the COVID-19 vaccine available to them. Masks are expected to be worn by teachers only, and, just over two weeks out from the first day of Term 1, other risk mitigation measures like ventilation, testing protocols, and plans for staff shortages, have yet to be sealed. 

A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Education suggested the state is “leading the way” on responding to COVID-19 in schools. 

“The majority of the settings in place at the end of Term 4 will remain in place for Term 1, including mask wearing, mandatory vaccinations for staff and cohorting,” the spokesperson said.

“The Department is working closely with NSW Health to finalise school settings for the start of the new school year, and detailed advice for Term 1, including the use of rapid antigen home tests, will be made available to school communities shortly.”

Until then, the state department has urged all parents to get their children vaccinated. But experts say it’s unlikely that even a fraction of all eligible children will be vaccinated in time for school, as GPs have been forced to cancel appointments as a result of supply restraints.

Angelo Gavrielatos, president of the NSW Teachers Federation, told Business Insider Australia that state and federal policymakers had committed more energy to slogans than they had to planning. 

“Insensitive slogans by the Premier and the Prime Minister don’t help,” Gavrielatos said. 

“Speak as much as you like, but you cannot ‘stare down’ the virus. And with respect to the Premier’s reference to school being ‘non-negotiable,’ I would have thought that the last two years would have taught us that you can’t negotiate with COVID,” he said. 

Gavrielatos said that under what could be considered far milder conditions than were seen late last year, as many as “40 schools” across the state were being negatively impacted by state planning failures, resulting in students and teachers being forced out of classrooms with COVID. 

He said Term 1, 2022, could only be worse by a longshot, and urged ministers and officials at the NSW Department of Education to consider the events taking place in the US and the UK as a warning shot. 

In the US, a growing number of school districts were forced to defer their reopenings after Omicron case numbers exploded. Many schools reported crippling RAT shortages, while others were made to grapple with mass teacher absences. 

The UK’s Tory government last week pledged to keep their schools open as a “priority” even as they faced similar staff shortages, and ballooning Omicron case numbers. 

There, at least, students are required to wear masks, and the government has committed to installing ventilation units in classrooms. 

Gavrielatos said the least state governments could do around the country, and particularly in NSW, would be to introduce student mask mandates. 

“Ventilation and air quality assessments have become urgent, and need to be done,” he said. 

“And, of course, there’s masks, and the need to provide high quality masks, N95s, to our school settings to ensure that masks are a requirement for all in all settings, as uncomfortable as it may be.”

Until such a decision can be made, some teachers say they’d sooner resign than return to work, where labour conditions were fraught long before the pandemic began, and have only been exacerbated by it. 

“I just don’t know if I can do it,” one teacher said. “I didn’t sign up for this,” said another.