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Back to School – A Whole New World

Five-minute breaks, classes starting earlier and ending later, students helping to disinfect rooms, and canteens with take-way services only are some of the changes planned by schools across Portugal for the next school year. There is one month left until the beginning of the next school year, which starts between the 14th and the 17th of September but everything is being overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a statement to the Portuguese Media Outlet, Lusa, the President of the National Association of Directors of Groupings and Public Schools (ANDAEP), Filinto Lima, confirmed that many schools have already completed their new operational plans, while others are still finalising theirs, taking into account as many scenarios as possible.

All schools will start with face-to-face teaching, and depending on how situations develop each schools can at any time move to a mixed or distance learning model. In September, all parents will be informed of what the next school year will include, with a guarantee that all safety conditions will be in place for students to return to school.

Some rules, such as the definition of circulation circuits within schools, the mandatory use of masks or the cleaning of spaces, will apply to everyone, but solutions can be adapted to the needs of each school.

Many principals have decided to extend opening hours, with classes starting earlier and ending later: ‘Instead of 8:30, they will start at 8:00 and end at 19:00, rather than 18:30,’ explained Filinto Lima.  In addition, some will shorten break times while others will create five minute breaks between classes. It is believed that implementing these two measures will make it possible to divide classes into shifts with some students attending classes early in the morning and others in the afternoon.  Shift teaching’ will become more appropriate for year seven students and above.

However,  Manuel Pereira, President of the National Association of School Leaders (ANDE), stated that other considerations need to be taken into account, especially for younger students who cannot remain in school for just half a day, as many of their parents are at work and so we need to factor in their education around a different  model.

Further safety initiatives include reducing break times to reduce the number of pupils gathering in any one place, especially outside classrooms, but it is felt that this could have a negative impact, such as decreasing students ability to concentrate.  For Manuel Pereira, shortening break times ‘makes sense on paper but doesn’t work in practice  as children need to rest, and although they can do this inside the classroom, they need to have the ability to socialise.’ Other schools have chosen to do away with break times, to avoid concentrations of students around the school on the grounds that the noise caused by those who are enjoying their rest period can prevent others from concentrating on their studies.

“There are no ideal solutions,” ventured Filinto Lima, stressing that the teachers are ‘sailing in uncharted waters.’ What appears to be a solution for one school may be impractical in another. In the interior of the country, there are several educational establishments that were designed to accommodate many students but which currently have only a few. In these cases, it is easy to assign a room to each class, commented Manuel Pereira. But there are many overcrowded schools.

There are schools that have decided that the canteens would provide only a take-away service and the bars ‘would have limited access.’ Filinto Lima confirmed that schools are working hard to ensure that when schools re-open in September everything is ready, but admits that there is no zero risk and that the entire school community must play its part.

The chronic lack of staff in schools is now aggravated by the increase in tasks, from the need for greater control of students to the constant cleaning of spaces. Therefore, many will ask older students to help with these task such as disinfecting classrooms and corridors. ‘This is a measure that will be discussed with parents and students and which we hope will be accepted. It will be for everyone’s good, otherwise the risk of contagion will increase.’

When asked about ‘catch up’ classes for those who have fallen behind due to the closure of schools, Filinto Lima said that all students will undergo an ‘educations diagnosis’ and for the first few weeks of the new term classes will be held to ensure that everyone catches up and can move forward into the new school year. In addition, everyone will have to learn about the new school rules.

The Ministry of Education has announced that it is hiring  2,500 teachers to support the recovery programme as well as the extension of tutorial support for those students who need it.  Other schools are looking at using students to mentor others.

It will be another year of uncertainty, since it is not known how the Covid-19 pandemic will evolve. It is a case of taking things day by day and plan as best we can for the future. explained Filinto Lima.

Manuel Pereira pointed out that that schools and staff were working non-stop to ensure that the new academic year runs smoothly.  As he says  ‘If it goes wrong, we will be the face of schools. If everything goes well, no one will remember us.’

Excerpts from Pink Floyd’s 1979 hit  ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ have a frightening twist on today’s new pandemic schooling.  As one viewer asked ‘Were they trying to teach us something back then.’ For those interested the pertinent section starts at 2.22.

Samantha Gannon

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