Portugal: Teachers in high-risk groups need improved conditions and options

published 2 December 2020 updated 3 December 2020

The Federação Nacional da Educação (FNE) has highlighted its concerns about the safety of Portuguese teachers and education support personnel (ESP) during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially if they belong to high-risk groups.

About one in four teachers (26.4 per cent) in a FNE survey indicated that they belonged to a high-risk group. In addition, 27.8 per cent of responding ESP declared that they belonged to a high-risk group.

With an aging teaching population, the FNE expects to see increasing numbers of teachers belonging to high-risk groups soon. According to Portuguese legislation, high-risk groups are people aged 65 or older, people living with chronic diseases or with compromised immune systems, transplant recipients, or people who are HIV-positive.

The education union laid out its demands to guarantee the safety of teachers when they return to face-to-face education in its latest report, “Conditions of schools on returning to the classrooms”. The report, released by the FNE Executive Committee on 19 November, is based on a national survey of 1,316 teachers and 248 ESP from pre-school, basic, and secondary education institutions. The consultation was held from 17 September to 2 October.

Remote working

According to the FNE study, about 13.1 per cent of teachers intend to stay working from home during the pandemic. One in five - 21.1 per cent - indicated that they intended to minimise the time spent at school.

However, the FNE stressed that, currently, teachers belonging to high-risk groups cannot legally opt for remote working. Instead, they must justify their condition to the school management with either a declaration or a medical certificate. The medical certificate gives them the right to be absent from work for 30 days, without loss of salary.

Medical certificates

Another medical certificate is required if these teachers choose to stay at home, protecting themselves and others, beyond 30 days. However, some doctors refuse to issue these additional medical certificates. And teachers suffer a salary loss, as if they were “truly sick.”

This situation has created  legal confusion. In March, teachers were forced to stay at home and work remotely. Now, however, they are prohibited by law from doing so, undermining their health and safety.

The FNE was surprised that the Ministry of Education said that, as of 30 October, only 700 teachers belonging to high-risk groups  had submitted statements to stay at home for 30 days. The union has concluded that, in practice, and in the absence of an adequate framework, teachers from high-risk groups remained at school, despite the aggravated circumstances in which they did so.

The right to opt for remote working

Considering the legal and labour framework for teachers belonging to high-risk groups developed under the COVID-19 pandemic, the FNE legal department assessed the issue of legality of the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Education, creating obstacles  to exercising the right to opt for remote working.

The FNE has criticised the fact that this right is not guaranteed, because its exercise depends exclusively on the employee's  will, although there is a safety and health obligation of the employer,

According to the FNE legal department, teachers  have a right to opt for remote working. The FNE and its member unions will continue their action in defence of these teacher rights.

Demand for improved guidelines

In an open letter to the Education Minister dated 13 November, the FNE expressed its criticism of the conditions under which the Ministry of Education dealt with the school year.

It criticised the government’s inability to produce a fair solution in terms of a framework for teachers belonging to high-risk groups. This led to the contradictory situation of the latter being prevented from remote working, while colleagues in isolated locations have had to use e-tools for remote teaching and learning to continue working.

The FNE has urged public authorities to discuss and establish guidelines which, among others, clarify absenteeism regulations linked to the pandemic and the way in which these are related to career development and salary cuts. These guidelines should also determine remote working options for teachers from high-risk groups.

Comprehensive report

The FNE’s report on “Conditions of schools on returning to the classroom” also provides extensive information from teachers and ESP on the functioning of educational establishments (for example, the performance of the Ministry of Education, conditions of safety and security, or available human resources).

Read the report (in Portuguese) here.