Last week, Australians rejoiced as COVID-19 vaccinations began rolling out to high risk “priority groups” kicking off the first phase of the Federal Government’s COVID-19 vaccine national rollout strategy.
Under the first part of ‘phrase one’, priority groups will include quarantine and border workers, frontline health staff and aged care and disability care staff and residents. The second part of phase one includes defence force workers, firefighters, police, meat-processing workers and emergency services.
While the news has been broadly welcomed, teachers’ unions say school staff, which were considered “essential workers” by the Health Department at the outbreak of the pandemic, deserve to be included among the priority groups now receiving the vaccine.
During 2020, hundreds of schools across Australia were shut down after staff and students became infected with the virus, leading to widespread disruption of the nation’s education system.
“This is disappointing because it’s clear that teachers are an essential service. It’s bewildering that we haven’t been included in the priority groups,” Berwick Lodge Primary School principal, Henry Grossek, told The Educator.
“The absence of teachers from this list is particularly concerning in light of what happened in New Zealand, where several students recently came down with the virus”.
On 14 February, Papatoetoe High School in Auckland was closed for deep cleaning and contact tracing after a Year 9 student at the school was identified as one of three community cases in the area. Five teachers and 28 students at the school were identified as close contacts of the infected student.
There are fears that similar outbreaks could happen in Australia unless teachers and principals, many of whom are old enough to be considered high risk of contracting the virus, are vaccinated.
The Australian Education Union (AEU) has written to Health Minister Greg Hunt about the need for teachers and education support personnel to receive priority access to COVID vaccines.
“As the Federal Government acknowledged at the height of the pandemic, teachers and support personnel working in schools and early childhood settings play a critical role in keeping society functioning," AEU federal president, Correna Haythorpe told The Educator.
“Yet they have not been given any priority under the proposed vaccination plan. People working in education settings are collectively exposed to millions of other people from across the community every day".
Haythorpe said the "demonstrated critical importance" that school staff have to society, the economy and the nation's future prospects, mean they should be treated as a priority group for receipt of the vaccine.
“With the movement of millions of students, teachers and parents on a daily basis, priority access to vaccination would reduce the risk of transmission and provide significant health, social and economic advantages for children, the education workforce and the broader community".
Queensland Teachers' Union president, Cresta Richardson, said vaccinating school staff will "ensure the continued provision of service and safety" amid the pandemc.
"At the height of the COVID lockdown in Queensland, teachers and school leaders were ensuring education continued for all students. Whether students were on site as the children of frontline workers, or accessing remote learning, teachers and school leaders continued to do their jobs and kept the cogs turning," Richardson told The Educator.
"The importance of this cannot be understated. As they played such a critical role in the lockdown and return to a COVID normal teachers and school leaders should be specifically considered as a priority working group in the rollout of any national vaccination rollout".
Matthew Johnson, national president of the Australian Special Education Principals’ Association, said special education teachers across Australia meet the criteria to be considered among Australia's disability care and education workforce.
"Many of our students access supported care environments after school where those staff will receive priority vaccination whereas our teachers will not," Johnson told The Educator.
"I think our special educators are often unappreciated and overlooked".
Some education departments across Australia are meanwhile trying to allay the concerns of principals by seeking more information from Health authorities on plans to vaccinate teachers.
In a statement provided to The Educator, a spokesman for the NSW Education Department said the Department is in discussions with NSW Health to ensure staff are able to receive the vaccination when it becomes available, and in line with the Commonwealth Government’s phased roll out of the vaccination program.
When asked to explain why teachers were not considered priority workers, a spokesperson for the Department of Health told The Educator that “any change in priority populations would be based on the advice of independent medical experts such as the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation”.