Emma Lowe, AEU Campaign Organiser, reflects on the experience of members last year whose workplace had a confirmed COVID case, and asks, “is your sub-branch ready?”
The end of another long day at school. You are sitting in your car in your driveway. Scrolling through your phone to distract yourself from the enormous bag of marking you have carted home.
You are standing on the side of an oval, occasionally waving at your kid at football practice. Mostly you are trying to chat to your friend and catch up on their latest life news. Your first non-schoolwork-related conversation that day!
It is a warm sunny Sunday afternoon and you’re cruising along in your car. Your partner has the stereo cranked to their new favourite artist. You hum along, silently running a checklist through your head in preparation for a big week of parent-teacher interviews.
Then ding, ding, ding. Notifications fill your phone. The music counts out to go to a breaking news story with the Premier and Chief Medical Officer.
This is the moment you find out the news that your preschool or school is closed due to a student or staff member testing positive for COVID-19. Waves of fear roll in. Then the isolation hits.
Lots of questions will pop into your head, and perhaps pop out loud? What does this mean for me? What happens now? What do I have to do? What about the others I am with right now? Or who I live with? Do we all quarantine? What does quarantine involve?
Many of our members have stories of this moment. This is how they found out the news. And in all unsettling likelihood, it will happen again in 2021 to one or more of our preschools and schools – your workplace.
If it happens to be yours, there is no warning. You will find out the same time as the rest of the community. It is a public health announcement. SA Health are the decision-makers and the Department for Education must comply with their directions.
The name of the confirmed case is confidential and will not be disclosed. All of this means you will find yourself in a place of great uncertainty.
One thing for sure is that your colleagues will share that uncertainty. We talk about solidarity in the union movement. What does this mean? It is in this exact situation we need to access solidarity to counter the isolation and fear.
But how do you do this when you have been directed to quarantine and physically distance yourself from those sharing this moment with you? Our usual ways of connecting as colleagues, and as a sub-branch, are thrown into disarray. We cannot have meetings or morning teas or the all-important chat at the pigeon holes. In fact, our usual way of even communicating and feeling connected is totally disrupted. Solidarity is coming together to solve our problems, and that means we need structures in place to do that.
If you want to make sure everyone is safe, how will we do that? Does someone need greater support because of their own personal circumstances? What about checking everyone is still being paid? How will you clarify whether working or on leave? And then what type of leave? If we need to make a decision on something – how will we include everyone? How will we vote?
Reflect on your sub-branch. If you find yourself in this situation then you need to be ready with:
- Communication: Must be two-way and quick – emails are slow and can miss people. Text? WhatsApp? Facebook? Phone calls? Who contacts who?
- Meetings: A virtual platform everyone can access. What do you already use? How will members know there is a meeting? How will you include everyone and balance the voices?
- Decision-making: You will want to decide on action, to do something – how do you make sure this decision is democratically reached? Vote via email?
- Roles: There will be a flurry of activity that is beyond one person. Who can help out? Who can take on responsibility for a task?
When there is certainty in our day-to-day, we default to our usual way of doing things. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us in every aspect of our lives – including how to keep a sub-branch united and to ensure everyone is safe and supported. This is an opportunity to reflect on the structures and systems we use, and what we can improve to make them more inclusive and democratic.
Take this opportunity with your sub-branch and reflect on your ways of working as a collective. What do you want to change so you can work better together? What will enable us to be more purposeful as a sub-branch? What will build the solidarity as AEU members?
This is written from my perspective as an observer. Being thrust into this situation is not my lived experience. I speak from the position of being in a safe working space of an organiser supporting AEU sub-branches that found themselves in this situation.
I wish to acknowledge our sub-branches and their members that generously used their experiences to inform this. Their commitment to making the situation better for the next preschool or school is a true act of solidarity.