COVID-19: Morrison attempts to blackmail teachers

Photo: Australian Education Union / Facebook

Prime Minister Scott Morrison took to the media on April 15 to undermine state premiers and teachers and pit parents against teachers during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Under pressure from teachers and parents, state premiers have told students to stay home and undertake remote learning, unless they have no choice. But the PM is having none of it.

He said teachers are forcing parents to make the decision between home schooling and “putting food on the table” during the COVID-19 shutdown. Further, he said rather dramatically, “the education of our children hangs in the balance”.

Morrison is simultaneously using emotional blackmail and shaming, while the funds are not being allocated to provide basic on-the-job safeguards, including testing all workers, students and staff in schools. It is his government that is denying income protection for many workers, and has driven the high rates of casualisation.

Some state governments are making an effort to provide safe environments for students, teachers, education support staff and other workers in schools while providing remote, online learning.

Morrison’s video produced confusion among some parents about what is the right thing to do.

Many parents are finding the change challenging. Teachers are also having to learn how best to use online technology: teaching from home and ensuring that it works for students is certainly not the easier option.

Morrison’s make-believe concern for students is spurious given his government's record of funding cuts to government schools.

The OECD’s Education at a Glance 2019 ranks Australia 10 in its GDP expenditure at the primary school level, and 17 at the secondary school level.

Moreover, every government school teacher can verify that their school does not have sufficient resources to cater for students with a disability, or for students not engaged — for various reasons — in schooling, students at risk of domestic violence or neglect.

So much for his regard for vulnerable students.

While there is no conclusive evidence about whether students are less likely to contract COVID-19, there are many examples of students contracting the virus and some even dying.

New Zealand's largest cluster, so far, is at a Catholic Girls school in Auckland, where 92 have been infected.

NSW Health confirmed on April 5 that there have been multiple cases at educational facilities across the state, including a student at Bankstown Senior College and a teacher at Kambala School. There has also been a second case at TAFE Ultimo and a childcare centre in Blacktown has been identified as a hotspot, with seven staff and six children infected.

COVID-19 is a highly infectious virus, as demonstrated by the speed with which it has spread globally.

A PM who is genuinely concerned about students would err on the side of caution. Even if children are less likely to become infected, schools are also workplaces for many adults. These people also have a right to a safe working environment.

If other workplaces, such as parliament, need to be shut down to prevent transmission from one adult to another, why not all educational settings?

Currently, schools, childcare centres, TAFEs and special schools cannot be described as safe. They are only now, during the first week of term 2 (in Victoria), receiving supplies of hand sanitisers. Masks are still not available.

Classrooms are not designed for safe “distancing” and children, let alone teenagers, find it hard to maintain physical distancing behaviour.

All workers must have the choice about whether they are prepared to take the risk of going to work and becoming infected and possibly passing it onto their family.

Morrison’s speech was designed to add to the mounting pressure from sections of industry to lift the lockdown and for workers to return to work. 

His real concern, like that of US President Donald Trump, is about the economic hit his capitalist mates are taking.

We must resist any attempts to force us back to work when there is no certainty about how to adequately protect ourselves, apart from social distancing. This means that, where possible, we must continue to work from home.

Morrison’s government should hang its head in shame for using our taxes to bail out giant corporations, such as Qantas, whose CEO Alan Joyce took $24 million last year, more than 275 times the full-time average wage.

Education workers in schools, early childhood and TAFE must ask their unions to oppose any attempts to return to “physical” teaching until we have been consulted. There also needs to be clear definitive evidence that it is safe to do so, and that there are on-the-job safeguards to prevent any outbreaks or re-emergence of the COVID-19.

[Mary Merkenich and David Linden are members of the Australian Education Union.]