On 18 March, the President of the Republic signed a Decree declaring a state of emergency, lasting 15 days; it was renewed twice and ended on 3 May. Considering the need to reduce the risk of contagion and implement measures to prevent and combat the Covid-19 epidemic, this legislative act partially suspended the exercise of certain rights, including the right to move around the national territory.
Policy actions and measures regarding education and training
On 13 March, the Government adopted exceptional and temporary measures related to the Covid-19 outbreak including the suspension of face-to-face academic, non-academic and training activities, which came into force three days later. Training activities could be replaced by distance learning provided that specific conditions were met, and the necessary adaptations were in place. On 9 April, the suspension of face-to-face education and training activities was extended after re-evaluation, aiming to ensure success in combating the pandemic and in coherence with the renewal of the state of emergency.
On 30 April, the Government adopted a strategy for the de-escalation of containment measures, setting 18 May as the possible date to restart schooling. Only learners in the 11th and 12th year of education (second and third year of VET programmes) were expected to get back to schools, the aim being to enable them to complete their studies to access higher education. On 14 May the Government restructured the exceptional measures for the organisation and functioning of education and training activities in the context of the pandemic. The new measures specified that:
- learners in the last two grades of compulsory education (11th and 12th year of education) should return to schools on 18 May; the teaching programme would run from 10.00 to 17.00;
- day-care support for disabled young people should reopen on 18 May;
- pre-school education and leisure activities should restart on 1 June;
- the school year should be extended until 26 June;
- the exams for both general and double certification programmes should take place (specific guidelines were already issued, as well as those for the next academic year);
- higher education institutions have autonomy to decide when to reopen.
During the Covid-19 pandemic significant synergies supported the national goal to overcome the crisis. Strong cooperation and partnerships among public bodies, associations, scientific societies, enterprises and foundations put together a set of resources such as new platforms or tools that were free of charge or produced specifically to support distance learning. The capacity of schools and teachers was particularly decisive in achieving such positive results through distance education (educação a distância - E@D); its current methodology can be considered good practice in Portugal.
Several practices were in place for VET programmes. All structures aimed to ease learners’ access to education and training and improve the quality conditions of distance learning.
The education ministry issued guidelines for professional schools on the development and functioning of E@D, including attendance, training plans, assessment, final exams and WBL.
Education and training of young people and adults are under the remit of the National Agency for Qualification and VET (ANQEP) and the Institute of Employment and Vocational Training (IEFP). Qualifica centres, supervised by ANQEP, had specific guidelines for distance learning. Digital technologies also ensured the continuation of the recognition, validation and certification of competences process. The training programmes of vocational training centres, supervised by IEFP, were also offered through distance learning. To restart suspended training actions and initiate new ones, the didactic material was adapted and the trainers were trained accordingly. As long as companies were functioning, WBL continued provided that there was an agreement between the parties involved and safety measures were in place.
Informing the general public
Informing learners about hygiene and safety in the pandemic situation was a main priority for the relevant authorities. The methodological guidelines for E@D had a strong focus on strategies for approaching and monitoring learners at the different levels of teaching and learning. The education and labour ministries and institutions such as ANQEP and IEFP offered great support to all agents involved in education and training through their websites.
Supporting vulnerable groups
To support the most vulnerable or disadvantaged learners, an alternative education method Telescola, a renewed tool transmitted through a television channel, was developed in parallel to digital education and training. The Study at home television programme covered all the grades of basic and secondary education, and with a wide range of subjects aiming ‘not to leave anyone behind’. It is also worth mentioning the efforts of municipalities and civil society to find ways to provide equipment such as computers to students with economic difficulties and without access to digital tools. In April 2020, Portugal launched an Action plan for the digital transition also focusing on education and training.
Although all education and training providers have access to valuable tools supporting digital teaching and learning, digitalisation, apart from creating great opportunities, also involves significant challenges. The main ones are:
- the organisation of distance learning;
- the adaptation of the training content to e-learning methodology;
- the identification of learning supporting measures and inclusion of learners in apprenticeship;
- the design of a systematic plan that assures open communication with learners and their families.
VET is currently facing a double challenge: to equip employees with the necessary skills to adapt to the changing needs of the economy; and to help workers that lost their jobs due to this crisis to find a new one. In this sense, VET can play a crucial role providing individuals with the required digital competences.
However, the biggest challenge will be to overcome this pandemic with health and safety, so that we can share experiences and, perhaps, create a European guide of good practices for E@D and distance learning