Rethink required: Why return of Year 12 is too risky

Independent Education Union of Australia NSW/ACT Branch

Since NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on Wednesday that HSC students and school staff would return to school on August 16, the IEU has been inundated with questions and concerns from principals, teachers and support staff – none of whom were consulted about a decision that directly impacts them.

Of utmost concern is health and safety. “There is a huge discrepancy between the health directives applied to the general community and sending Year 12s back to school,” said Independent Education Union of Australia NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam (the IEU represents 32,000 teachers and support staff in NSW and the ACT). “On the one hand, we’re minimising movement among the community, and on the other mobilising 50,000 Year 12 students to go back to school. It only creates greater risk for everyone.”

Dr Peter Webster, the Principal of St John XXIII Catholic Learning Community at Stanhope Gardens (in the Blacktown LGA), is deeply concerned. “Before exams, before learning, the first duty of a principal is to provide a safe environment for their staff and students,” Dr Webster said. “With the current government health advice, we are not able to have our Year 12s return and fulfil that duty.”

St John XXIII has 1856 students from preschool to Year 12, and 188 staff; 63 percent of secondary school staff are under 40 and have only just gained access to vaccination. Many children of authorised workers are already attending school, and the return of Year 12 will only increase the numbers – and therefore the risk.

NSW is doing battle with the highly virulent Delta variant of COVID-19, which is transmissible among children. Despite another rushed announcement about a Year 12 vaccination hub at Homebush, it is unrealistic to expect this many students and their teachers will be vaccinated by August 16.

Dr Webster reiterates the contradiction of Year 12s returning to school. “The NSW Government is effectively forcing school principals in the designated hotspots to have Year 12 students return for an examination,” Dr Webster said. “They are risking the health of the community for the sake of an exam when there is a variety of valid, high-quality alternative assessments.”

While most of Greater Sydney has been ordered to work from home, Year 12 teachers are being sent back in. “Schools are workplaces and human interaction is how they operate. How are school staff to be trained in and supplied with sufficient personal protective equipment to shield them from this dangerous Delta variant?” Northam said.

“Teachers, principals and school staff are all doing their utmost. So it is unfair for the NSW Government to make such high-impact decisions without consultation. We call on the government to talk to teachers and their unions about any return to the workplace.”

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