Updated 10.45pm, adds government statement

State school teachers will go on strike on Thursday and Friday after union talks with the prime minister ended without agreement. 

The Malta Union of Teachers said all their members across primary, secondary, university and kindergarten would not turn up for work unless lessons are held online. 

This means that all schools in Malta and Gozo will have to close for the remainder of the week or offer online options, MUT head Marco Bonnici said.

An assessment of the situation will then be taken over the weekend to decide on a way forward.

The action is supported by the Union of Professional Educators – Voice of the Workers, which also asked its members to strike.

The move comes after Malta recorded its highest ever number of new daily cases since the pandemic began, most likely sparked by gatherings over the Christmas and New Year holidays, despite warnings from health authorities.

Malta Union of Teachers head announces a two-day strike over COVID-19 health concerns. Video: Mark Zammit Cordina

Bonnici was speaking on the steps of the Auberge de Castille following a meeting with Prime Minister Robert Abela and his deputy, Health Minister Chris Fearne. 

Journalists were told during a news conference that the MUT was registering an industrial dispute after the meeting did not reach an agreement.

Earlier on Wednesday, unions accused the education ministry of ignoring health advice to stay shut to stop a further spread. 

Schools to open as planned

But in a statement, the government said it was reopening schools on Thursday on the health authorities' advice.

It said that during a meeting with the union, Superintendent of Health Charmaine Gauci directly told union representatives that the education and health authorities were working together for schools to reopen, contrary to what the union claimed.

This meant that it was the union that was going against the advice of the health authorities, which advice was also given publicly.

Gauci noted that through cooperation, Malta was one of the few countries which did not close schools.

Education and health were priorities for the government and all decisions that had been taken were taken in the interest of students.

MUT's decision to ignore the advice of health authorities was illegitimate so when schools reopened on Thursday, teachers were expected to report for work normally and honour their employment obligations, the government concluded. 

Some independent schools have opted to teach remotely, while all Church schools have already said they will operate online for the rest of the week, postponing reopening classrooms until Monday at the earliest. 

Bonnici said this situation created an imbalance as the government had refused to take the same precautions with State schools. 

“If the risks are there for church and independent schools then they are there for all schools and the same precautions must be taken,” he said.

In a statement later, the MUT said it was informed that state school principals were ordered by the Education Ministry not to obey the strike action. It condemned such behaviour.

It said it was also informed that some educators were also being intimidated.

It is rare for teachers in Malta to carry out strike action. In 2018 a threatened strike over a proposal to tie teachers' warrants to continuous assessment was called off at the eleventh hour.  

PN leader Bernard Grech said he supported the teachers "who had to resort to a strike because the government of Robert Abela continues to ignore the advice of the health authorities and continues with his cry of 'business as usual'".

Grech accused the prime minister of putting the health of students, teachers parents and school staff at risk.  

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