State school teachers in inner Melbourne are pushing for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for school staff and jabs for almost all eligible children before face-to-face learning resumes, arguing Victorian schools are not yet safe enough for the return of a million students.
The push comes as some schools receive legal threats for promoting vaccines to their school communities from parents and anti-vax groups who incorrectly claim the jabs are “highly experimental” and “proven to be neither safe nor effective”.
Princes Hill Secondary School staff members (left to right): Felicity Marlowe, Jamiel Sabbagh, Jessica Little, Lou D’Adam and Bernie Dineen have joined a push for mandatory vaccinations for school staff before children resume face-to-face lessons.Credit:Eddie Jim
A breakaway group of Australian Education Union delegates who represent staff at state schools in Melbourne’s inner suburbs have called on the Andrews government to mandate vaccination for all school staff before students return to on-site learning.
Premier Daniel Andrews is expected to announce a road map outlining the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, including plans for schools, on Sunday.
The move comes as Education Minister James Merlino confirmed on Tuesday authorities were investigating Fitzroy Community School’s invitation to parents to send children to classes during lockdown and dismissed its principal, Tim Berryman, as “irresponsible”.
Thirty-three teachers and students at the independent school have now tested positive to COVID-19 and the schools regulator is investigating whether it breached its legal duty to keep children safe.
The 48 delegates of the union’s inner-city region unanimously passed a motion calling for schools to be made safer in the pandemic. This includes an urgent audit and rectification of ventilation in all school buildings as well as ensuring that “eligible student vaccination numbers are close to 100 per cent before the return to onsite learning”.
Students aged 12 to 15 became eligible for the vaccine this week.
The inner-city group’s motion is an attempt to put pressure on the Andrews government and the Victorian branch of the education union, neither of which have committed to mandatory vaccinations for teachers. This is unlike NSW, where school staff must be vaccinated by November 8.
The inner-Melbourne teachers are pushing the union – which is holding a postal ballot on whether to take industrial action against the Andrews government over pay and conditions – to take a harder line on vaccinations and include “COVID safer class sizes” in its negotiations with the government over an enterprise bargaining agreement.
The motion is also due to be put on Wednesday to the union’s Broadmeadows region, which covers schools in Melbourne’s outer north-west where the Delta variant outbreak is most severe.
“We want to avoid the pandemic of the unvaccinated and to protect our students, including our own children, young people and families, from any undue harm caused by COVID variants now and in the future, as well as from the documented risks of long COVID,” the motion states.
Felicity Marlowe, a union representative for education support staff and the student wellbeing co-ordinator at Princes Hill Secondary College, said staff were due back in classrooms full of VCE students by early October, but the government was yet to release a plan for term 4.
“There are many schools that require an urgent audit ventilation and airflow,” Ms Marlowe said, citing her school as an example.
“In a school of 900 students, we are three storeys, we’ve got shared locker bays, staff rooms and really crowded corridors and stairwells, I cannot see how we could safely bring everybody back.”
Ms Marlowe said school staff had a duty of care to provide a safe learning environment where children could learn.
“As employees we want to make sure that we can work in the safest workspace possible and while there’s been promises made, we just need to have more confidence that we can work and teach and support young people in a safe space.”
Mr Merlino said the government did not yet have a plan to impose mandatory vaccinations, but was “working through a range of industries and sectors where staff vaccinations may be a requirement”.
“My view on vaccination: it’s our pathway through this pandemic,” he said. “Whether you’re a teacher, whether you’re an education support staff member or a student, get vaccinated.”
He said 20,000 VCE students, VCE teachers and exam assessors had booked a jab in the state’s current VCE “vaccination blitz” ahead of exams in October and November.
The government aims to “provide an opportunity” for all children aged 12 and over to receive at least one vaccine dose by the end of the school year.
It’s also provided schools with a vaccine communications toolkit to help the state reach its target of 1 million jabs by September 19.
The toolkit includes a range of materials for students aged 12 and over, including social media content, a poster, web banners, newsletter templates and frequently asked questions.
Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said she had “consistently said that schools should only return to on-site learning when it’s safe to do so and in accordance with the health advice”.
“We have encouraged, and will keep encouraging our members to get vaccinated as soon as possible, as the best way to protect themselves, their families and their communities from COVID-19,” Ms Peace said.
Meanwhile, Tina King, acting president of the Australian Principals Federation, said some schools had received legal threats for sending out government emails encouraging student vaccinations.
“Schools are becoming targeted by anti-vaxxers who have taken umbrage to the emails, saying they have no right to pass them on,” Ms King said.
“They are contacting schools saying, ‘What are your medical qualifications?’”
One email states: “Any act of social manipulation or psychological pressure encouraging vaccine uptake in minors, students, or employees, whether directly, or indirectly, or other behaviour aimed at downplaying vaccine risk and shaming vaccine hesitancy under the pretext of ‘promoting community safety’ is unconscionable.”
Shayne Rule is principal of Lakeview Senior College in Caroline Springs, which will provide vaccines to students and staff this week.
Mr Rule said he had heard some complaints from parents about promoting vaccines, but some of the opposition had “diminished when it was made clear to parents that this [jab] was not compulsory”.
Mr Rule said the issue was probably more contentious for the families of students aged 12 to 15 because anyone over 16 did not need parental permission for vaccines.
Unions representing the state’s low-paid, predominantly young and female early education workforce have also advocated for priority COVID-19 vaccination and paid time off to get the jab – but have fallen short of advocating mandatory inoculation.
The early education sector is familiar with mandatory vaccines, with children required to be up-to-date with childhood vaccinations to attend.
With Paul Sakkal
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