Worlds of Education

In-person schooling during the pandemic: collective bargaining vs. political profiteering

published 19 November 2021 updated 19 November 2021
written by:

During 2020, as part of the prevention and isolation measures taken in response to Covid-19, Argentina’s national government passed a decree suspending in-person classes throughout the country. The decision was backed by an institutional framework for social and political support.

As education workers, we backed the effort to maintain the social right to education through distance education, utilising the technological resources available to each teacher and access to connectivity.

Distance education brought substantial changes in the way teachers work, along with serious health implications. The situation, as noted by trade unions, prompted the need for collective agreements to regulate the new working conditions and secure new rights for the education sector.

The new agreements covered areas such as the regulation of working hours and the right to disconnect, free teacher training in distance education and compulsory protocols for the return to face-to-face teaching, to help prevent transmission within schools.

Every effort was made, in spite of the difficulties arising from the inequalities not only in access to the technologies required but also in teachers’ and students’ living conditions, to maintain the educational and social link with students, going to their homes, in many instances, to take them learning materials such as text books or photocopies.

According to a survey conducted by CTERA, 67% of teachers felt overworked. The causes identified included the lack of equipment and connectivity, poor organisation of teaching spaces and times, new working methods – online teaching – without sufficient training, etc. This unprecedented situation and its high impact on working conditions continues to be a subject of debate in the field of occupational health.

The national government drew up a framework protocol and federal guidelines for the return to face-to-face classes in compulsory education and higher education institutions, which establishes a minimum floor of mandatory conditions to be met, as well as general risk analysis and assessment frameworks for face-to-face activities.

Safe return to school, coordinated trade union work

Scientific advances opened up new ways of dealing with the pandemic, such as prevention policies and access to mass vaccination. In February 2021, a new joint agreement was signed placing education workers in the priority target groups for vaccination against Covid-19 and a Return to Face-to-Face Classes Observatory was set up.

The 2021 academic year began with a gradual return to the classroom, but the epidemiological situation deteriorated, with a sharp increase in cases and hospitalisations, placing local health institutions under extreme pressure.

The majority of teachers, like society as a whole, were eager to see a safe return to face-to-face teaching, that is, where priority is given to the life and health of all.

CTERA, together with its affiliated organisations, began to coordinate monitoring of the situation, to ensure and demand respect for compliance with the regulations agreed on within the framework of collective bargaining, including:

  1. Analysis of the epidemiological situation by jurisdiction, through a dynamic dashboard showing the evolution of the key indicators.
  2. Monitoring of the progress of the vaccination plan among education workers and students.
  3. Monitoring and supervision of compliance with health and safety protocols.

The political consensus achieved in 2020 between the national and provincial governments on the criteria and protocols for the suspension and/or return to face-to-face education was not possible this year.

“In those provinces where teachers’ unions were able to take part in joint committees or talks, the return to the classroom was agreement-based, safe and less traumatic.”

Argentina is in an election year, with the seats in both chambers up for election. The majority of the opposition, the neoliberal right, warning that the lack of in-person schooling could be one of the main causes of social unrest, has used the issue as an election banner.

Deciding on a return to face-to-face schooling on a massive scale without taking into account the growth in transmission rates, the conditions of school buildings or compliance with protocols was strongly disputed by the unions. The return to school was turned into a disgraceful publicity spectacle. In the city of Buenos Aires and provinces opposed to the national government, large publicity campaigns were launched surrounding the return to in-person schooling. As transmission rates grew, workers were falling ill and dying from Covid-19. Our unions resisted and were left out of all involvement in decision making.

We are outraged and condemn these provincial governments and political factions for raising the banner of public education whilst doing little or nothing to help pave the way for a safe return to the classroom.

We are proud to observe that in those provinces where teachers’ unions were able to take part in joint committees or talks, the return to the classroom was agreement-based, safe and less traumatic.

The teachers’ fight has enabled us to win rights that improve working conditions. The calls for the implementation of these rights, the awareness raising and the promotion of the need for mass vaccination of the whole population, including students under 18 years of age, have all contributed to the situation we have at present – a sharp and sustained drop in infections. The pandemic is giving us a breather, but it is not over, and we remain on the alert.

Education and health are defended as social rights with state policies, with governments that invest in education and democratise decision making with worker participation. The gains secured have been made possible through the reinstatement of the national teachers’ collective bargaining negotiations with the government of A. Fernández. But the fight for better working conditions and the implementation of such collective agreements is still a challenge.

We went back to school, we came together, we are happy and WE CONTINUE TO STAY SAFE.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.