Schools must open, the unions must back down

The confusion of messages on the scale of precautions was first exacerbated by the triumphalist talk of Robert Abela in the beginning of the successful COVID-19 strategy, and then, with the second wave, an apparent refusal to take up serious precautions and limits once again

Kalkara primary school getting ready to welcome students back: State schools will reopen on 7 October in a staggered way
Kalkara primary school getting ready to welcome students back: State schools will reopen on 7 October in a staggered way

With some very rare exceptions, it seems that a large part of the school body on the entire European mainland has seen its state and private schools welcoming students; some of the less inclement summer climes, even since August.

But as we have seen in the last week in Malta, the teachers’ unions and teachers themselves have resisted attempts to open schools, despite the necessity of having children in class to resume their interrupted education and to restore a semblance of regimented socialisation in their lives.

There is an entire community that is in gainful employment under the most trying of conditions right now, but our education system remains plagued by a culture that is stuck in time. Teachers’ contact hours in Malta are punctuated by numerous staff development days’ off apart from a long summer break; schools in other Mediterranean countries like Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal have also opened their schools towards the end of August or the beginning of September. And while teachers are indeed justified in bringing to the fore the issue of their salary structures for a job so necessary for society, the second their work practices change it seems all hell breaks loose, with the MUT and the UPE pulling out the stops.

Certainly, educators are not the only profession which have had to carry out a sacrifice under the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19. To attempt an odious comparison, far more jobs have faced the prospect of reduced salaries and less hours, even terminations or reduced revenues, than that of teaching, where the demand for schooling never stops.

Of course, COVID-19 is a problem – for everyone – but measures must be taken to counter the pandemic but physical schooling must take place.

And we cannot approach this subject with the trepidation of having to confront teachers as if they were untouchables. I surmise that part of the problem here lies with the government itself, whose education ministry appears to have dragged its feet in helping schools get in line with health protocols to prepare for COVID-19. Granted, these preparations could not have been easy. But now that it has been scorched by criticism, it is appearing too soft to take on the unions and their pressure to keep schools shut.

This is what we get when the advice of health experts is overruled by politicians seeking to score populist points, even – believe it or not – during a pandemic. The confusion of messages on the scale of precautions was first exacerbated by the triumphalist talk of Robert Abela in the beginning of the successful COVID-19 strategy, and then, with the second wave, an apparent refusal to take up serious precautions and limits once again. Of course, the economy must keep on moving, even at the risk of a few deaths or so… and indeed, here we are now.

But at this stage when we expected children to be back in school, the country certainly cannot make room for either union representatives who want special regard for teachers, or even health apparatchiks who seem to be inclined to impose strict conditions against COVID-19 in one area, but have allowed complete anarchy in other areas. And that is something for Charmaine Gauci to chew upon.

Like doctors and nurses who have obligations, so do teachers have responsibilities, more so in this difficult time. They will probably find hours aplenty to bolster students’ capacities with private lessons, earning more outside their directly taxable teaching hours. Because it is quite striking that we end up turning to private after-schools lessons because of a serious lacuna in our schools where students who fall behind are not supported at school itself. Quite a Maltese phenomenon.

And that is the black hole that the MUT and the UPE should be addressing; while the government itself should show tenacity and audacity: raise salaries if need be, but do not let thousands of students suffer.

We must keep classrooms open, bring back our students to face-to-face lessons, and enable those with learning problems to get the attention needed.

As Malta faced COVID-19, our essential services kept on functioning: the nurses and doctors, the carers, the pilots and the policemen, the soldiers, the journalists, the thousands of workers who kept the economy going and the retail outlets. They all had contact with hundreds of people. Everyone made great sacrifices: many in the private sector lost their salaries and get home pay. Most teachers and schools had none of their pay reduced. Which is why many ask: what makes teachers different to anyone else? Truly, they are probably more important to our society because the younger generation needs them so much, but their parents need to get back to work to raise essential income to sustain their families.

And this is the message that Owen Bonnici needs to emphasise – this is not time for smug commentaries but for tough decisions. Europe’s schools have been open for six weeks, and COVID-19 has besieged the continent. Here the MUT is complaining, talking about closing schools before even opening them.

The future of our children cannot be dictated by a union. Owen Bonnici needs to find the courage to step in and take immediate action.

Talk about taxing jobs

This week I was chastised by Nationalist activists who support Bernard Grech, to stop badgering the PN leadership hopeful about his tax-averse history.

I refuse to accept such a hypocritical attitude.

Apart from Grech’s unimpressive political outlook, I cannot accept that this tax scandal is of no concern to the general public.

Our political landscape has long been set by the effect of public amnesties on cash repatriations, Swissleaks and the Panama Papers.

Honesty on tax has been a battle-cry of the Nationalist Party, so if its own prospective leader cannot get his act together or at least accept that transparency on his past behaviour is the least he can give us, how can he expect others to respect his political arguments?

If we are to accept that tax evasion is a national malaise, then to hell with due diligence, accountability and corruption probes.

Grech may galvanise the Nationalist vote, but he will prove for the umpteenth time that this society only considers ‘tax issues’ of significance if it suits one’s political prejudice.

Make no mistake: people out there have been disappointed by Grech’s blasé attitude towards the press when it shone light on his tax affairs.

Grech may be seen as some sort of antidote to Adrian Delia amongst the PN middle-class heartland of the 10th district, but the fact that he appears uncomfortable coming clean on why he never paid taxes for a consistent amount of years, even declared incomes that seem to be inconsistent with his profession, is a problem.

Tax evasion is criminal and immoral.

Undoubtedly, this kind of history will return to haunt him when facing Robert Abela in a general election.

Surely enough, the rebel faction has included tax affairs in its ‘wanted’ requirements for any future PN leader.

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