Union will not forget bushfire-affected communities

Federation has refused to allow the escalating coronavirus pandemic to overshadow the response to last summer’s devastating bushfire season and the impact on our school and TAFE communities.

Indeed, the anxiety around COVID-19 has only compounded the physical and psychological trauma experienced by the teachers, students and their families in bushfire-affected regions.

Just as homes, small businesses and local infrastructure were in the process of being rebuilt, the coronavirus threat has added a new layer of complexity to the bushfire recovery.

Consistent with the actions called for in a motion to Federation’s March Council from Batemans Bay Teachers Association, one of the state’s worst affected areas, Federation Officers met with the Executive Director Bushfire Relief Strategy on 18 March via teleconference.

One issue that Federation raised on behalf of members was the urgent need for exhausted staff in bushfire-affected schools to have access to some form of special leave. Many of our school and TAFE colleagues in effect had no vacation last summer at all. Exhaustion had well and truly set in for those teachers and students, particularly after week 5 of term 1 when additional school counselling support that had been put into those communities was then withdrawn.

Following further communications between Federation and the Department it was confirmed that the Department will make available additional school counselling and/or other mental health services support to those schools that need it.

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell told NSW Budget Estimates in March: “What I can say to the Committee is that we made the commitment that we would work with school communities to put that extra mental health support in.

“That is what we did from the beginning of the term. It was for a four-week period but we have also made the commitment that basically we will stay until the school indicates that they are no longer required. We will take guidance from the principals and the school communities as to how long they are there for.”

The Department has also informed Federation Officers that up to five days of special leave will be made available for those teachers who served as volunteers in their local bush fire brigade, the NSW Volunteer Fire Brigade or the State Emergency Services during the January school vacation and returned to school immediately in term 1. These days can be taken at any time during the year subject to prior negotiation with the principal.

This is a significant win for those members because currently the Teachers Handbook only provides for one “rest day” for volunteers and it can only be taken immediately after their volunteer session and before returning to duty.

Federation recognises that these additional leave provisions will not apply to all staff even those who were nevertheless significantly affected by the devastation and need additional support urgently. Those matters are being brought to the attention of the Department on an ongoing basis.

In a further meeting with Federation held on 27 March, the Executive Director Bushfire Relief Strategy also committed to prioritising additional support for bushfire-affected schools in the current coronavirus context including facilitating flexible working arrangements and professional learning for staff and ensuring adequate student support even if delivered remotely.

If members in bushfire-affected communities continue to experience difficulties, they are encouraged to inform their Organiser or contact [email protected] so that Federation can pursue these matters with the Department.

Federation Officers have also been busy developing the union’s submission to the NSW Independent Bushfire Inquiry, based on information and recommendations consistent with previous decisions of Council on the climate emergency and the bushfire devastation.

The inquiry is reviewing the causes of, preparation for and response to the 2019-20 bushfires. Submissions have been called for from the general public, organisations and bushfire-affected residents.

The deadline for submissions is 17 April but may be extended (particularly in light of the coronavirus).

The inquiry has already held community meetings in Lithgow, Tenterfield and Glen Innes. However the COVID-19 situation has moved all upcoming community meetings in other areas online.

The inquiry will be holding an online meeting for Lake Conjola residents on Thursday 16 April at 5.30pm and for Mid North Coast local government areas on Friday 17 April at 3pm.

Federation has received assurances from the inquiry reviewers that members’ anonymity and confidentiality can be maintained where necessary.