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Schools Reopen in Italy During Covid-19, Between Fear and Uncertainty

Conte is optimistic, but families are worried that there are not enough teachers: the report on the first days after schools reopened

Vò - The President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, wishes the students a good academic year at the reopening ceremony at the Istituto Comprensivo di Vò, 14 September, 2020. (Photo: Paolo Giandotti - Ufficio per la Stampa e la Comunicazione della Presidenza della Repubblica)

"The inauguration of the school year, as never before on this occasion, has the value and significance of a restart for the whole of society. We are facing a decisive challenge," President Sergio Mattarella said. Between a lack of teachers and dozens of schools already in quarantine, Italy is experimenting with the reopening of schools.

For about 15 million children and teenagers who returned to school in person on September 14th, this year will be characterized by masks, sanitizing gel, new bell sounds, and a lot of social distancing. The rules are many and difficult to keep track of; families and teaching staff are concerned; there is a shortage of millions of desks necessary to ensure social distancing; a fifth of the teachers needed are yet to be appointed. And, above all, in the event of a positive COVID-19 case of any member of an educational institution, a quarantine will be enforced for the entire class. So how did this return to school go?

“The inauguration of the school year, as never before on this occasion, has the value and significance of a restart for the whole of society. Children feel it, adults and institutions understand it. We are facing a decisive challenge “, President Sergio Mattarella told Vo’ in regards to the inauguration of the new school year. But the difficulties are already many. In Fosdinovo, in the province of Massa Carrara, the entire class of an elementary school was quarantined after only 30 minutes of class. They entered the classroom at 8 in the morning, and at 8:30 they were informed that a child had tested positive for COVID-19.  And so 18 children and 3 teachers were quarantined. The same situation occurred in various Italian schools, from Bari and Monterotondo, in the province of Rome.

Despite the fact that the government provided schools with 136 million masks and 445,000 liters of sanitizing gel, this restart is somewhat shaky, and above all it reveals the economic disparities between different neighborhoods within the same city, or between different regions. “The differences between public and private schools are obvious,” says Giorgio Morelli, a third-year student at Tasso, a public high school in Rome. “Regarding my situation, my high school has decided to offer in-person class 3 days a week, while the other 3 will be remotely. My friends in private schools, however, have enough space to attend in person all week. “

PM Antonio Conte with Speranza and Azzolina

Those with more funds available have had the opportunity to rent additional spaces to facilitate social distancing, such as theaters or parish halls. And what about those who can’t afford to? Basically, they’ll have to make do. Ms. Tina Duso, for example, in a letter sent to Corriere della Sera, complains that her niece, an 8-year-old girl who attends the Ponte di Nona school in East Rome: “had to wear a mask all the time, and sit with a classmate next to her at a desk, because they did not have enough desks available to ensure social distancing.” Ms. Duso, however, saw the new school desks made available to richer schools such as Farnesina High School and other upscale areas on television. “And the suburban and poorer areas? Children are all the equal and so are the schools (even if it is difficult to believe)”, concludes Ms Duso. The situation in an elementary school in Genoa was even more dramatic, where children had to use chairs as desks while sitting on their knees.

Furthermore, if a school does not have funds to rent larger spaces, it is the laboratories that will be affected and sacrificed: the first to go will be the art workshops,  but soon after follow science, physics, computer science labs and so on. “In my school we had to turn our painting workshop into a classroom,” explains Maria Marzi, a teacher at a public secondary school in Rome. “For years I have experienced the importance of providing children with an artistic means of release, seeing a passion for art and its therapeutic effect on them. Although it pains me, I understand that now you have to be pragmatic, and make the best of a bad situation, using what you have. “

A student wearing a mask, which must be worn at all times

Maria was very worried about the beginning of the new school year, not only for her own health, but above all for the level of education that the children will be able to receive: “I teach in middle school, to children who are at an age of fundamental growth and development, ”explains Maria. “I am afraid that the education they will receive will not be adequate, with constant quarantines, interruptions, and remote learning. Not to mention having to always keep a mask on your face.”

The difficulties caused by this new type of teaching do not affect only those directly involved, that is, students and members of the teaching or scholastic body, but almost the entire Italian population. What will parents of children who only go to school in person a couple of times a week do? Who will watch their children? Will they have to stay at home? And what will they do if they have to go back to the office in person? “The logistical difficulties are many, too many,” says Paolo Tori, father of an 8-year-old boy who attends the Alberto Cadlolo elementary school in Rome. “Granted that I am absolutely in support of the reopening of schools, the lack of information regarding the possible scenario of one of my son’s classmates testing positive for COVID-19 is a source of anxiety for my whole family.”

Among Paolo’s greatest concerns? For example, what would a quarantine for his child entail: who has to be quarantined? Just the parents, or even anyone who has had contact with the parents, or the child, in the past 14 days? Even office colleagues? The nanny? Will it no longer be possible to go and see older relatives, in order to be careful? “If so, it would create an unbearable ramification,” comments Mr. Tori. “In two weeks time the entire city would be quarantined.”

Another big problem is the lack of teachers: there are 5,106 vacant positions in schools in Milan and its province, 2,065 of whom are “insegnanti di sostegno”, those who help children with any disability, as reported by Ufficio scolastico territoriale milanese. A fifth of the necessary number of teachers required has not been appointed, out of a total of 28,574. The situation of “insegnanti di sostegno” is even more dramatic; half of the needed 4,612 teachers have not been appointed yet, therefore almost 50%. According to trade union estimates, there are about 150,000 teachers missing.

Although there are many doubts and fears, Paolo, like many other Italian parents, is happy that classes have restarted. “Unfortunately, you cannot have a sure and outlined plan in this situation, and therefore no complete, certain answers,” says Paolo. “But society cannot restart without school in person. Children must be taught by competent teachers, not by parents who simultaneously are working remotely, and they must have human relationships and contact with their peers. We will learn together what going to school will mean in the time of Covid19. “

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