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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

COVID-19 in Portugal: Worry About Return to High School

Updated: May 15, 2020

Coimbra University is the dream of some students returning to school for exam preparation


Portugal has conducted itself admirably during these months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our leadership has acted responsibly, and the people have responded in kind. The United Nations Secretary-General and former Prime Minister Antonio Guterres said that he has enormous admiration for the country’s maturity and ability to work collectively in the face of this adversity, according to Diario de Noticias.

Portugal registered 27,406 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on May 9, 138 more than the previous day, which represented a 0.5 percent increase. Of the new cases, 45 were in the North region, 17 in the Central region, 73 in Lisbon and the Tejo Valley, and 3 in the Alentejo, according to DGS, the national health directorate.

The COVID-19 mortality curve shows a consistent decrease since April 15, which is quite relevant, said Minister of Health Marta Temido, at a press conference on May 9, when there were 1,126 recorded deaths, 12 more than the previous day, attributed to the new coronavirus.

So, then, why are more than 520 schools scheduled to reopen on Monday, May 18, for 11- and 12-year students? If it is a sensible time, why aren’t all secondary and primary school students returning to face-to-face classes next week?

The country began to re-open on May 4 with small businesses such as hairdressers, a place that people may frequent if they have the confidence to do so. We can make the choice of getting our hair cut. But even if parents are given the option of keeping their children home from school, it really is not a choice because education is so important.

Universities require national examinations for entry. So, why not change the requirements? Both France and the United Kingdom have canceled their exams this year. These are extraordinary times. They call for extraordinary measures. Teacher unions called for the cancellation of examinations in April.

In a survey, more than half of the sample, 56.7 percent, do not agree with the reopening of schools in secondary education in the month of May, and only 37.5 percent agree if there is social distancing, reported Expresso on May 4 from a questionnaire of the Observatory of Education and Training Policies (OP. Edu).

The plan for re-opening includes social distancing inside as well as outside. The inside spaces will be ventilated; bars will be closed, and hand disinfectant must be used on entering and leaving school. Classes will be divided to maintain distancing. Students also must wear masks, which now are required of everyone in public places.

The Portuguese Teachers Federation (Fenprof) launched a petition on May 8 to carry out COVID-19 tests for the entire school population before the schools reopen and asked that the tests be given repeatedly, said Fenprof in the Observador on May 8. It stressed that the measure is fundamental in order not to lose everything that has been gained with confinement. Recalling that before the government closed schools on March 16, some schools already had closed because of positive cases, Fenprof warned that the situation could be repeated without testing.

What we will have in schools the moment they reopen will be the sharing of spaces between young teenagers or children, who may be infected, will probably be asymptomatic and a group of teaching and non-teaching workers who, in addition to age, many older than 60, may have diseases that make them more vulnerable to infection, writes Fenprof.

Joao Dias da Silva, secretary general of the national education federation (FNE), told reporters after an April meeting at the education ministry in Lisbon that the very notion of a return to school in May frightens the educational community, teachers in particular, according to Portugal Resident on April 9.

Some parents worry because many teenagers live in family groups with elderly relatives and will put these loved ones at risk, said Portugal Resident.

Jorge Ascensao of the Confederation of Parents Associations claims that pupils, too, are suffering “emotional instability” as a result of the crisis, according to Portugal Resident.

"Many are at home with their parents and their grandparents," he said. "They are frightened to return to school as they know it will increase the risk of them taking the virus home."

“Many are

As for national examinations, the FNE’s position in April was clear: Students cannot take normal exams in an abnormal year. The tests planned for this academic year are ready and therefore, cannot take into account this different reality of suspension of face-to-face classes, according to Publico on April 8.

Also, the group that represents principals before the Ministry of Education, Conselho das Escolas, considered that examinations of 11th and 12th-year students should be eliminated if the current situation of confinement remains indefinitely, according to Publico. In a recommendation sent to the Ministry of Education, the directors said that it is not viable to apply remote assessment tools that were designed to be used in person, in the classroom.

Fenprof said that only material covered in the classroom should be on national examinations, reported Publico on April 8.

Since then, I understand that there have been changes in the examinations, that students will answer only the examination parts applicable to their learning on the direction of their teachers, and that the examination dates have been delayed by several weeks.

Also, dual certification courses in secondary education are being offered this school year, according to the general directorate of education website. In other words, students can graduate without taking national tests.

Clearly, the Ministry of Education has been working hard to preserve national examinations, which account for 35 percent to 50 percent of the grade with which students apply for places at universities, said Publico.

Perhaps, I am being as bullheaded about my son returning to the classroom as the Ministry of Education is being about national examinations. My son is in the 12th year.

Yet, so much changes so quickly in this pandemic. Recently, a disease possibly linked with the new coronavirus has been discovered in children and teenagers in the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, France and Belgium, according to El Correo on April 28. It has also been seen in the United States, said The New York Times on May 11.

On May 6, the medical journal, The Lancet, published a commentary called “Hyperinflammatory shock in children during COVID-19 pandemic”. One patient out of 8 died from the condition. He was 14 years old.

“South Thames Retrieval Service in London, U.K., provides paediatric intensive care support and retrieval to 2 million children in South East England. During a period of 10 days in mid-April, 2020, we noted an unprecedented cluster of eight children with hyperinflammatory shock, showing features similar to atypical Kawasaki disease, Kawasaki disease shock syndrome, or toxic shock syndrome (typical number is one or two children per week). This case cluster formed the basis of a national alert,” The Lancet reported.

“All children were previously fit and well. Six of the eight children were of Afro-Caribbean descent (one was of Asian and the other of Middle Eastern descent), and five of the children were boys. All children except one were well above the 75th centile for weight.”

The children, ages 6 to 14, had “unrelenting fever (38-40 C), variable rash, conjunctivitis, peripheral oedema (dropsy), and generalised extremity pain with significant gastrointestinal symptoms. . . Most of the children had no respiratory involvement, although seven of the children required mechanical ventilation for cardiovascular stabilisation.”

Four of the eight patients were exposed to COVID-19 from family members. On hospital admittance, none of the children tested positive for COVID-19. Since discharge from pediatric intensive care 4 to 6 days later, two have tested positive for it, including the child who died, in whom it was detected post mortem.

“As this Correspondence goes to press, one week after the initial submission, the Evelina London Children’s Hospital paediatric intensive care unit has managed more than 20 children with similar clinical presentation, the first ten of whom tested positive for antibody (including the original eight children in the cohort described above.”

The Spanish Society of Pediatrics (SEP) also launched an alert to its associates about the accumulation of cases of pediatric shock, according to El Correo on April 28. After parents’ frantic reactions on What’s App, SEP spokeswoman, pediatrician Cristina Calvo, explained that this condition is extremely rare and has a known treatment. SEP called for calm. Calvo said that the condition has been associated with the coronavirus epidemic but it is not completely clear whether it has a causal relationship.

The pediatric shock syndrome was not unknown in Italy, reported La Repubblica on April 28. The Italian Society of Pediatrics wrote a letter to 11,000 pediatricians to be alert for the symptoms, noting that it was not clear whether the new coronavirus was directly related to the pediatric condition. Nevertheless, the high incidence of this condition in areas with a high incidence of new coronavirus infection (Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria) and the association of positive swab and blood tests suggests that the association is not accidental.

In the United States, nearly 100 children have been diagnosed with this condition, according to NBC News on May 8. In New York State, three children have died, including a 5-year-old and a teenager), and 93 cases are under suspicion. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that the condition, now called pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome in the U.S., is rare but that parents should be vigilant.

New York health officials urged parents to seek immediate care if a child has prolonged fever; difficulty drinking fluids; severe abdominal pain; diarrhea or vomiting; change in skin color (becoming pale, patchy and/or blue); trouble breathing or is breathing too quickly; racing heart or chest pain; decreased amount of frequency of urinating, and lethargy, irritability or confusion.

I am not being stubborn in my opposition to schools re-opening next week for 11th- and 12th- year students. I am being cautious.

There are still too many unanswered questions about COVID-19, too many unknowns for me to feel comfortable sending my son back to school next week. I appeal to the government to rethink its decision.

Let us remember the words of the former Prime Minister Antonio Guterres for the 46th commemoration of the Carnation Revolution on April 25:

We can and must find inspiration to overcome our challenges.

“Many are at home with their parents and grandparents,” he said. “They are frightened to return to school as they know it will increase the risk of them taking the virus home.”

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