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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

COVID-19 in Portugal: National Exams or National Health?

Updated: May 2, 2020


Two months ago, there was certainty. Now, the only certainty is change. Covid-19 has turned the world upside down.

It has been difficult for me to accept the uncertainty. The Ministry of Education also seems to be grappling with change regarding national examinations.

In early February, my son and I attended a student, parent and teacher planning meeting for a winter student exchange between Portugal and the Netherlands. Now, we don't even know whether school – or anything else - will resume this academic year.

At that meeting, one lone voice asked about coronavirus. She was quickly reassured that the virus was not a problem, and the meeting moved on.

On February 16th to February 22nd, my son and 15 of his colleagues traveled from Oliveira do Hospital to Winterswijk in the eastern Netherlands. Still, I was not focused on the COVID-19, except to think that China’s autocratic government easily would be able to restrict its citizens’ movements and, therefore, overcome the virus. Reportedly, the virus had been detected in China in December 2019.

Then, Portugal observed its Carnival holiday from Monday, February 24th to Wednesday, February 26th. On Monday, my son traveled by train to Lisbon to meet up with friends. I had no doubt that he would be safe. However, when Venice canceled Carnival, I realized that the virus had arrived in Europe, but I was convinced that it was isolated in Italy and specifically, in northern Italy.

In Oliveira do Hospital, we planned for the Dutch students to arrive on March 15th and stay for one week. But before that time, the Dutch had decided to postpone the visit. At first, I was disappointed. Eventually, I understood their caution because they would be traveling to and from international airports. Portuguese students, parents, a teacher and the head teacher met to discuss a suitable date. All of us left that meeting satisfied that we had agreed on the last week of the school year. I wrote the name of our student, Charlotte, on our home wall calendar for May 30th to June 6th.

Shortly after that meeting, Portugal moved fast in its detection of the new coronavirus and its response to it. On March 2nd, Covid-19 surfaced in Portugal with two confirmed cases.

On March 12th, Portugal announced a state of high alert.

On March 13th, students marked their last day of school.

On March 18th, Portugal President Marcel Rebelo de Sousa declared a 15-day State of Emergency, its first since the Carnation Revolution in 1974.

On March 20th, Portugal had 1,020 confirmed cases and 6 deaths in a population of 10 million. This was the first day that I began noting daily statistics. Still, I believed that we would be spared many deaths from the virus.

On March 26th, Portugal recorded 3,544 confirmed cases and 60 deaths, 10 times as many dead in less than one week. Portuguese health experts said that we were in the Mitigation Stage, admitting that the virus could not be contained and enlisting the help of local health centers.

On April 2nd, Portugal extended the State of Emergency for another 15 days. The country is enforcing special measures to restrict people moving between municipalities from April 9th to Easter on April 12th.

On April 9th, Portugal confirmed 13,956 cases and 409 deaths.

During the two months of ravaging by this new coronavirus, I remembered that lone voice at the school meeting asking about the virus. Her instincts were correct, I am sorry to say.

The government announced that schools will not re-open as planned after Easter, and it would wait and see what happens in April to make a decision about May. There is an idea that the older secondary school students will return to school in May, so that they can take national examinations, which would be pushed ahead to July and September. I trust that it will remain an idea that does not reach fruition.

In France, secondary school students will not sit the traditional ‘baccalaureat’ examination this summer due to the coronavirus, the education minister said on April 3rd, according to Reuters. It is the first time since it began in 1808 under Napoleon Bonaparte.

Instead, students will receive an average score in each subject calculated from marks on tests and homework throughout the year, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said in a televised address.

England also has canceled national examinations, according to the BBC. Teachers will look at coursework, mock exams and other work to determine grades. Exam regulators and boards will determine a process to ensure that pupils’ “hard work and dedication is rewarded and fairly recognized”.

England’s Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said that no education secretary would ever want to cancel examinations, but he insisted that his decision is vital in these “extraordinary times”.

Williamson said: “My priority now is to ensure no young person faces a barrier when it comes to moving onto the next stage of their lives, whether that’s further or higher education, and apprenticeship of a job.”

Portugal’s stay-at-home policy works because it applies to everyone, regardless of age. Covid-19 does not discriminate, according to age. Portugal’s earlier exponential rise in cases and deaths is directly attributed to the spread of the virus by people who were out and about. One person can infect 10 others easily a day. Sending students back to school would be a deathly mistake.

The people of Portugal have done an admirable job in staying home and suffocating the spread of Covid-19. Much congratulations should go to the government for its example in the early days. President Marcel Rebelo de Sousa placed himself in a 15-day quarantine on March 9th after meeting a group of schoolchildren, one of whom later tested positive for the new coronavirus. At that time, Portugal had 35 confirmed cases. The president said that he wanted to set an example. Before and after his self-isolation, the president tested negative.

The president and Prime Minister Antonio Costa keep several seats between themselves when talking with each other. They are not shaking hands or kissing. For these two months, they have been keeping a distance from others.

It is so important that national leaders show its citizens what is expected of them, especially when it relates to public health. However, care must be taken not to lift restrictions too soon.

I believe that the government will not relent too soon. I believe that April’s statistics will be interpreted as needing more time at home. I believe that the government will rule on the side of national health, not national examinations.

The truth is that the only certainty always has been change. But because Covid-19 moves so quickly and acts so ruthlessly, we have had this cold truth thrown in our faces.

As my father would say:

"Cinty Winty, we have to roll with the punches."

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