The Federação Nacional da Educação (FNE) has highlighted its concerns about the safety of Portuguese teachers and education support staff (ESP) during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially if they are among risk groups.
Roughly one in four teachers (26.4 percent) in an FNE survey said they belong to a high-risk group. In addition, 27.8 percent of the responding ESP said they belong to a high-risk group.
In view of an aging teaching population, the FNE expects that soon more teachers will belong to risk groups. According to Portuguese law, risk groups are people aged 65 and over, people with chronic illnesses or with a weakened immune system, transplant recipients or people who are HIV-positive.
The education union set out in its latest report “Conditions for Schools Return to Classrooms” its demands to ensure the safety of teachers when returning to personal education. The report, released on November 19 by the FNE Executive Committee, is based on a national survey of 1,316 teachers and ESP 248 from preschool, elementary and secondary schools. The consultation took place from September 17th to October 2nd.
According to the FNE study, about 13.1 percent of teachers plan to work from home during the pandemic. One in five – 21.1 percent – said they wanted to minimize their time at school.
However, the FNE stressed that teachers who belong to high-risk groups cannot currently legally choose to work remotely. Instead, they must justify their condition to the school management either with a statement or a medical certificate. The medical certificate gives them the right to be absent from work for 30 days without loss of wages.
Another medical certificate is required if these teachers want to stay at home for more than 30 days and want to protect themselves and others. However, some doctors refuse to issue these additional medical certificates. And teachers lose their wages as if they were "really sick".
This situation has created legal confusion. In March, teachers had to stay at home and work remotely. However, they are now legally prohibited from doing so, which undermines their health and safety.
The FNE was surprised that the Ministry of Education stated that as of October 30, only 700 teachers from high-risk groups had made declarations to stay 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 in school despite the difficult circumstances in which they did so.
The right to choose to work remotely
Given the legal and labor framework for teachers belonging to high-risk groups developed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FNE's Legal Department assessed the legality of the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Education and created barriers to exercising the right to vote remotely.
The FNE has criticized the fact that this right is not guaranteed, as its exercise depends solely on the will of the employee, although the employer has a health and safety obligation.
According to the FNE's legal department, teachers have the right to choose to work remotely. The FNE and its affiliates will continue to defend these teachers' rights.
Demand for improved guidelines
In an open letter to the Minister of Education on November 13, the FNE expressed its criticism of the conditions under which the Ministry of Education dealt with the school year.
She criticized the government's inability to find a fair solution regarding a framework for teachers belonging to risk groups. This resulted in the latter's conflicting situation being prevented from working remotely, while colleagues in isolated locations had to use e-tools for remote teaching and learning in order to keep working.
The FNE has called on the authorities to discuss and establish guidelines which, among other things, clarify the rules on absenteeism associated with the pandemic and how they are related to professional development and salary cuts. These guidelines should also set out remote working options for teachers from high-risk groups.
The FNE's report on “School conditions on return to class” also contains extensive information from teachers and ESP on the functioning of educational institutions (e.g. the performance of the Ministry of Education, safety conditions or available human resources).