Over a million pupils start new school year in masks

With fingers tightly crossed, Portugal returns to school this week: roughly 1.2 million children and teens will be filing back into the classroom, a purported 85% of 12-17 years olds now vaccinated against Covid-19.

But this doesn’t seem to have changed a thing: the measures of the last two pandemic years remain in place – mask-wearing at all times (even outside during break-time) for the over-10s; physical distancing (as much as possible); floor markings within school buildings (ensuring children ‘stay in line’ and ‘go in the same direction’).

In the case of younger children, parents are still barred from accompanying them into school: they have to leave them at the gates.

In crèches, the orientation remains: children shouldn’t share toys and should remain physically distanced even when having their ‘rests’ and at mealtimes.

This latter insistence – after so many educators, staff and parents have been fully vaccinated – is already being widely criticised by people who run and/or work in crèches, as they try to ensure that small children do not spend formative years believing that sharing is somehow “dangerous”, ditto physical contact with friends.

Some parents are now also questioning why they were persuaded into vaccinating their children in time for the new school year. The official message midsummer was that this will save a possible return to distance learning if infections start spiralling. But there are no assurances – even with the 85% of youngsters who have received their jabs.

One concession from health chiefs appears to be ‘guidance for isolation’: if a positive case is detected in a class, it will not mean that the entire group has to go home for two weeks, only children who test positive.

Público has also stressed that there will be “no discrimination” between pupils who have taken the Covid-19 vaccine and those who haven’t.

Epidemiologist Manuel Carmo Gomes explains why this, in the end, can be the only approach: “We are realising more and more that vaccines are efficient against infection, but less than happened with the Alpha variant that guaranteed protection of 80%-90%. With the Delta variant (now responsible for 100% of infections in Portugal and many other European countries), we have protection of around 50% as it is very contagious, comparable to a virus that we all get, like chicken pox.”

The notion of attaining herd immunity on the back of stellar numbers of people who have taken the vaccine in Portugal “now does not look possible,” he told SOL online this week. “We are entering an endemic phase. The most sensible thing is to normalise our lives with the presence of the virus.”

In other words, Portugal may have made leaps and bounds in terms of vaccination, but while the situation globally is far from being controlled, “it will be very difficult to think of interrupting the circulation of the virus”.

In fact, the expert who has been key when it comes to advising government through the pandemic admits there are no certainties in anything – particularly in how the pandemic will evolve through autumn.

One aspect is clear: schools are returning at a point that this time last year saw a ‘new wave’ of infections roll through the country – and the situation right now is technically no better than it was this time last year, before the arrival of the vaccines.

SOL explains: on September 1, 2020 there were 350 patients in hospital with Covid-19 and 44 in intensive care. By the end of the month, this tally had doubled, and by the end of October it had increased five-fold.

Fast-forward to September this year and the country had 681 patients in hospital, according to the DGS Covid bulletin for the first day of the month, 131 in ICUs. This number, however, has been falling. Nonetheless, at time of writing, it was still considerably higher than comparable numbers for the year before (September 14, 2020 saw 477 people in hospital with Covid-19, 61 of them in ICUs; this year the numbers were 551 and 116, respectively).

Same goes for ‘incidence’ (this time last year it was well down on incidence now) and even deaths: “In July and August, 656 infected people died in Portugal, the majority of them elderly. Last year, in the same months, there were 240 deaths associated with Covid-19,” says SOL.

Different countries are approaching this next phase in the pandemic in different ways: some clamping down on everyday activities to the point there are regular protests in the streets; others opening up to find they are suddenly facing increasing numbers of new cases and high death rates.

Portugal has been toeing the line of caution – and experts like Carmo Gomes believe this is key: populations now are versed on how they should be protecting themselves. Instead of constantly ordering them to do this or that, it is time for a new approach.

Today (Thursday) the line-up of virologists, epidemiologists and pneumologists who have habitually consulted with the government will be giving political leaders the benefit of their latest thoughts.

Expectations are that they will advocate “total liberty” – in other words, the time has come for people to “take responsibility for themselves, be sensible and face the fact that Covid-19 is not going away”.

According to Expresso, “total liberty” will mean that “masks, digital certificates, limits on the numbers of people to any particular space, hand hygiene and all restrictions imposed against Covid should stop being obligatory from the end of the month”.

As Carmo Gomes explains, people will very possibly – indeed almost certainly – end up contracting Covid-19 but, considering that the vast majority is now fully vaccinated, the likelihood is that their illness will be no more than “a cold”. At least, that’s what everyone is hoping. There are no guarantees, even less any certainties.

Meantime, the 1.2 million schoolchildren filing back into the classroom have a new programme on their syllabuses this year: ‘recovery of knowledge lost’ during the policy maelstrom of the last two years.

Testing for pupils, teachers and non-teaching staff
All pupils in the 3º ‘Ciclo’ (7th to 9th Year) and Secondary education (10th to 12th Year) will be tested on their return to school, irrespective of whether or not they have been vaccinated – as will teachers and non-teaching staff.

The plan is to first test teachers and non-teaching staff (this began on September 6 and should be concluded by the end of this week), then move on to the Secondary pupils (from September 20 to October 1) and finally to the 3º Ciclo pupils (October 4-15). Testing afterwards appears to be likely as and when outbreaks occur.

[email protected]