Education unions around the world pay tribute to educators lost to COVID-19 and call for safe working conditions in education

published 20 October 2021 updated 4 November 2021

On World Teachers’ Day, 5 October, education unionists from all corners of the globe gathered to pay tribute to teachers and education support personnel lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, to honour their legacy, and to demand safe working conditions in education. They also reaffirmed the need to invest in educators for quality education and sustainable societies.

Education unions from every corner of the globe marked World Teachers’ Day by joining Education International in a powerful tribute to educators lost during the pandemic.

Unions also organised local events to advocate for their members.

In Africa, the Cape Verdean government promised to resolve outstanding issues for teachers by 2023. This was confirmed by the Education Ministry at a meeting on World Teachers’ Day with the Federaçao Caboverdiana dos Professores (FECAP).

During the meeting, the union focused on improving teachers’ careers at all education levels. FECAP sought to secure better conditions for teachers and to lower the student–teacher ratio during the pandemic. It presented Education Minister Amadeu Cruz with a set of measures aimed at improving the teaching profession and education quality. The proposals around outstanding educators’ rights included a new salary scale for teachers and automatic promotion of all teachers.

In Eswatini, in an address to the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), UNESCO Country Secretary Phumzile Hlophe commended “the unwavering support and diligent support of teachers during this COVID-19 period. UNESCO has seen the efforts of teachers”.

The South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU) lamented the fact that “we are celebrating World Teachers’ Day, for the second time in a row, under a dark cloud of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic that caused untold disruptions to schooling, economy and life in general”. The union insisted that, “for the country to be more productive, we need more educated workers, government has to invest in human resource development and teachers are crucial in producing that educated and skilled workforce”.

Many educators throughout South Africa gathered to pay tribute to fallen colleagues and friends, celebrating them with slogans such as: “They are gone but not forgotten”, “Their contribution to the profession won’t be forgotten”, or “Fallen heroes”.

In Arab countries, in the case of Iraq, the Kurdistan Teachers’ Union (KTU) and Cihan University marked World Teachers’ Day, 5 October, and Kurdistan Teachers’ Day, 6 October. At a joint ceremony, their leadership highlighted the crucial role of teachers in ensuring a better future for the community. The contribution of retiring teachers was acknowledged and the memory of over 70 deceased teachers was honoured by attendees.

During the ceremony, the President of Cihan University, Dr. Nawzad Yahya Bajger, highlighted the role of teachers “in raising and educating the community towards a higher level”.

KTU President Abdalwahed M. Haje added: “If we want to have a functioning society, the government must put education and graduate studies among the priorities of its agenda and allocate a proper budget.”

In Jordan, teachers fought for their rights on World Teachers’ Day. They called on their government to reinstate dismissed teachers, drop charges against them, stop the harassment of teachers and unionists, and respect international labour standards.

The Yemeni Teachers Syndicate (YTS) reaffirmed its commitment to ensure that teachers’ human and trade union rights are respected, and called for international support. YTS spokesperson Yahya Al-Yanai condemned the fact that, “on the other side of the union and teachers’ struggle to protect education, it seems that some people are eager to make schools nurture ideological mindsets that support violence, using children and young people as a human reservoir used in war”.

With the support of Education International, YTS is also campaigning for teachers’ salaries to be paid by public authorities, so teachers can focus on delivering quality public education to all students.

Education unionists of the Syndicat National de l'Enseignement - Fédération Démocratique du Travail (SNE/FDT) in Morocco also observed the global minute of silence on 5 October to remember educators lost to the pandemic.

In Asia-Pacific, the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU) joined a campaign against the privatisation of technical and further education.

The AEU reiterated that Tasmania's public Technical and Further Education (TAFE) sector delivers high quality training and education with the highest student satisfaction rates and top apprentice completion rates nationally. It demanded that the Tasmanian Liberal Government withdraw its TasTAFE privatisation plan. And it called for dialogue between the government and TasTAFE teachers and support staff to hear how Tasmania's economy can be rebuilt with TAFE training and education leading the way.

The AEU also explained that TAFE needs more government investment, not the Liberal Party's privatisation plan that will shift costs to students and employers, delay economic recovery, and diminish training and education. Members and concerned citizens were encouraged to sign a petition to stop the privatisation plan.

In Indonesia, the Teachers' Association of the Republic of Indonesia (PGRI) stated that “this nation still needs the presence of teachers even though technological progress continues to be made”, and “teachers certainly cannot be replaced by technology”.

On World Teachers’ Day, the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association (NZPPTA) also paid tribute to overseas colleagues who have died from COVID-19, adding that “we have lost too many educators to COVID-19”.

In Europe, the Polish Zwiazek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego (ZNP) noted that educators were “always present … because, in a pandemic that affected the whole world, we were at the board: virtual or real. We were with our pupils and students; we did not disappoint!”

This way, they said, “we emphasise that teachers are always present in the lives of their students. We also remember educators who are no longer with us because of the coronavirus”.

ZNP President and Education International’s Executive Board also called for a teachers’ demonstration on 9 October, under rallying slogan such as: “No more arrogance and humiliation!”, “Minister, respect teachers! They leave the profession so quickly!”, “There is no education without teachers!”, or “Tired of teachers being disrespected!”

Elsewhere, the Trade Union of Secondary and Higher Education, Nurture, Science and Culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina (TUSHENSC BIH) joined in Education International’s global event. It organised one minute of silence at midday on 5 October to pay tribute to all educators who passed away during the pandemic. During the event, the names of these educators were read out, explained TUSHENSC BIH president Admir Terzic.

In a newsletter and on social media, the Union of Education Norway (UEN) commended teachers for their work. It also posted a message on its website focusing on the need for qualified teachers worldwide and the importance of social dialogue. A film was posted on the UEN Facebook page, where learners spoke about their definition of a good teacher.

The UEN president and member of Education International’s Executive Board, Steffen Handal, highlighted the important role of teachers when building back better. He insisted that teachers are crucial for social wellbeing and called for adequate time for pedagogical work in early childhood education.

Handal also participated in the webinar, “Teachers at the heart of education recovery”, organised by UNESCO, the International Labour Organization (ILO), UNICEF, and Education International. Underlining the importance of social dialogue, he was adamant that “the experience of the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of building collaboration over time, based on trust and dialogue, and useful both in ordinary times and in times of crisis”.

Using digitalisation as an example, he said that “even if distance learning has been useful, the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of teachers for students’ learning and wellbeing. Teacher trade unions must work to secure digitalisation as a support to teachers in their professional practice, rather than as their replacement. New technology should enhance quality education, and not promote commercial interest or be used to save money.”

In Spain, the Federación de Enseñanza CC.OO. (F.E.CC.OO.) congratulated all educational staff who, “through their tenacity and effort, contribute to making a better world. You are awesome! Thank you for the tireless work that you do every day in educational centres”.

The union also acknowledged the teachers and education support personnel who died in the pandemic and stressed the complex situation in which educators still have to carry out their work.

F.E.CC.OO. emphasised the role of teachers in the wellbeing of children and, therefore, of society as a whole, a role that, in the last 18 months, has proven vital throughout the pandemic.

Paying tribute to the teachers who have died due to the pandemic, it noted that the exact number was unknown, as no data had been provided in this regard.

F.E.CC.OO. also published an article in its e-magazine recognising “the teaching profession as a fundamental agent of recovery”.

FE.CC.OO. also highlighted the key challenges of salaries, as the OECD report, Panorama de la Educación, found that Spain is one of the few countries in which teacher salaries have fallen. At primary school level, salaries have stagnated and dropped by three per cent at secondary school level.

The union reiterated that, this year, the UNESCO/UNICEF/ILO/Education International joint statement demands that “we not only pay tribute to all educators. We call on countries to invest in them and prioritise them in global education recovery efforts so that all students have access to a qualified and supported teacher.”

In the Latin American region, the Federación Colombiana de Educadores (FECODE) of Colombia highlighted that, “for all students to return to the classrooms, we need to recognise the reality of the classroom, the need and concerns of students at home, as well as the weaknesses of the educational infrastructure. Teachers are always present.”

The union said that the Government has deliberately ignored the context in which the educational community lives. The planned education budget for 2022 is still very low, it noted.

FECODE also condemned the fact that thousands of Colombian educators have been victims of different acts of violence, including murder, displacement, and threats.

In Brazil, Fátima Silva, Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Educação ( CNTE) General Secretary and Vice-President of the Education international Latin America Regional Committee, and other CNTE representatives went to Brasilia’s airport to welcome and put pressure on MPs arriving in the national capital. The unionists urged the MPs not to vote for the PEC 32 Bill, an administrative reform proposed by President Jair Bolsonaro and Minister of the Economy Paolo Guedes.

For CNTE, PEC 32 represents “a deadly attack on the public service, its transfer to the private sector, just at the moment when the country needs education, health, public safety and development the most!”

It warned that this reform would “remove rights from poor, tax-paying servants and maintain elite privileges”, and see “the State act as a supporting role - that is - it will only enter where entrepreneurs do not see profit”.

CNTE explained that PEC 32 will not result in any savings, but only favours the outsourcing of public services.

Brazilian education unionists further regret that, while public servants are saving the country from the pandemic, the Government wants to harm them with PEC 32 as a “thank you”.

Deceiving people, this administrative reform will facilitate the persecution of civil servants who do not agree with the behaviour of politicians and government officials, CNTE said.

Considering that “stability is not a privilege, but a guarantee for the civil servant to carry out his duties without political pressure”, CNTE added that PEC 32 will harm the poorest, as the government wants to deliver public services to the private sector. “Public services cannot become a source of profit for entrepreneurs, as they consist of fundamental social protection rights.

“There is no lack of money in Brazil. There is a lack of qualified management,” according to CNTE.

The union was also present for the presentation of the results of research on teaching in times of a pandemic, focusing primarily on the working conditions of public-school teachers or those receiving public resources during the pandemic. This survey involved 13 countries in Latin America.

In the North America/Caribbean region, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE) of Mexico emphasised that “teachers are true heroes in the face of COVID-19 to save the school year with new pedagogical practices and to start presential classes again”.

SNTE highlighted the digital divide, “a challenge accepted by teachers with a true vocation and ingenuity to reach their students lacking technological devices”.

New teaching practices, new resources, and creative educational strategies were developed to provide education during the pandemic, it noted, adding that the teacher-parent binomial is vital.

It also reiterated that students count on their teachers to receive educational and socio-emotional support to overcome the COVID-19 period.

Across Mexico, education unionists unveiled commemorative plaques honouring the memory of educators who died from COVID-19.