Public schools open today amid uncertainty over last-minute teacher assignments
Public school students return to their classrooms today as concerns grow over a last-minute decision to fill a teacher shortage in elementary schools with traveling educators.
Thousands of children will return to their desks after the summer break, with some elementary students unsure whether they will receive adequate learning.
Private schools opened last week, while some denominational schools started on Monday.
A shortage of 80 teachers in public primary schools was filled this weekend by the Ministry of Education which allocated classrooms to itinerant teachers. These educators normally teach specialized subjects such as art, music, physical education, science and ethics, and commute between different schools.
The situation has caused concern among itinerant teachers and a labor dispute. These teachers had to prepare work plans for their students in several subjects, including Maltese, English and Mathematics in a matter of days.
A music teacher who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity said he was assigned a classroom 48 hours before the start of the school year. “I’m lost. I’ll be in a classroom not knowing what to do, let alone the poor students who won’t get the education they deserve,” she said.
Her situation is similar to that of other itinerant teachers who were not told by authorities that they would be assigned to a classroom on Saturday afternoon.
A deputy principal who also spoke on condition of anonymity said primary schools that lacked teachers only learned who was assigned to them over the weekend.
“We have been assigned a brilliant art teacher who has no idea how to teach the main subjects and has no time to prepare,” she said.
The situation has raised the concern of parents of children in classrooms affected by the shortages and who have to deal with unprepared and demoralized itinerant teachers.
“The situation is unfair for teachers who received last minute assignments and unfair for our children who will not receive a proper education,” said a group of parents who have children in a 5th grade class. The class was assigned to a physical education teacher.
Parents said an online meeting with the assigned class teacher scheduled for yesterday has been postponed indefinitely.
But it is also the students who benefit from complementary services who will suffer as some of these educators have also been assigned classes.
Education Minister Justyne Caruana said out of 500 traveling teachers, 81 were to be assigned to classroom tasks. She insisted that itinerant services will continue to be provided normally.
The teacher shortage is in part caused by COVID-19 protocols which impose a minimum of 1.5m between student desks, which in some cases has necessitated the division of classrooms.
On Monday, the Ministry of Education filed a court injunction against the Malta Teachers Union and the Union of Professional Educators to end the industrial action after the unions issued directives to itinerant teachers affected by the decision to last minute.
However, the judge hearing the case recused himself on Tuesday after lawyers pointed out that his wife is a member of a union.
READ ALSO: Union accuses Ministry of Education of last-minute ‘desperate’ attempt to displace teachers
The case was entrusted to judge Robert G. Mangion who appointed a first hearing Tuesday morning. At the start of the hearing, the lawyers representing the unions pointed out that the judge’s wife is a member of one of the unions.
Citing local and European case law, MUT lawyer Keith Borg stressed that even if the integrity of the judge was not called into question, justice should “be seen as being done”.
Given the sensitive nature of the dispute, he said, it would be better for the judge to recuse himself and not raise any doubt as to the impartiality of the proceedings.
Lawyer James D’Agostino, appearing on behalf of the ministry, agreed, saying the case law on the matter was clear. He also said he trusted the discretion of the sitting judge.
After hearing the arguments, the judge granted the challenge. The case will now be assigned to another member of the judiciary.
Permanent Secretary Frank Fabri, Director General of Educational Services Emil Vassallo and Director of Educational Resources Lucienne Calleja represented the educational authorities.
MUT President Marco Bonnici and UPE CEO Graham Sansone represented their respective unions.
Lawyers James D’Agostino and Dennis Zammit assisted the applicants. Lawyers Franco Debono, Marion Camilleri and David Camilleri represent the UPE. Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi, Keith Borg and Rebecca Mercieca attended the MUT.