As an American pediatrician who has spent a lot of time in Italy, where the pandemic began in February and the whole country was in lockdown by early March, I’m interested in how children and families in Italy are responding to the current phase of reopening schools.
While the back-to-school situation varies across the United States, with many districts still offering remote lessons, in Italy, where I am right now, most children are going back to their classrooms in person this fall.
Italy came out of lockdown in stages over the summer and, like other countries in Europe, is now facing an increase in the number of Covid cases, though as of this writing, it is not one of the countries hardest hit. I checked with my friend and colleague Dr. Stefania Manetti, who practices as a family physician in a town near Naples, a region of the country that was relatively spared during the pandemic, but which is now seeing higher numbers of new cases daily than the northern regions where the spring was most deadly.
Her own work with the families of the children she cares for has changed, both because of the precautions against infection, and because it is such a challenge to keep supporting parents through these difficult times. “We see a lot of stress in families,” she said.
The major subject on her mind is the same one that’s on pediatricians’ minds and most especially on parents’ minds in the United States right now: “It’s obvious there are risks with the opening of schools, but there are greater risks if the schools don’t open,” she said. “The primary interest should be the child, and the fact that he has to go back to school.”
Certainly, there has been controversy and discussion about how to open schools safely in Italy, and many parents have expressed uncertainty and anxiety. In speaking with American colleagues who have settled in Florence and married Italians, I was struck by the importance they placed on schools restarting, and by the trust they expressed in the schools and the protocols.
Alexa Farah said that last spring, when she was talking to her family in the United States, she found herself predicting the next steps in the pandemic experience, telling them what was coming their way. Ms. Farah, 41, a facilities manager, who has lived in Italy since 2000, has a 4-year-old daughter, Zoe, who attends a private preschool, or scuola d’infanzia (there are also public preschools). “Once I saw schools were closing, I thought, OK, it’s real,” she said.
Her daughter’s program went remote last spring, with teachers offering a variety of activities, including weekly themes and crafts, but like many parents of young children, Ms. Farah felt that these sometimes were really assignments for the parents. During the most intense phase of lockdown in Italy, when there were barricades on the parks, the family relied on a garden space shared by the eight families in their building.
But on June 15, as the lockdown ended, the school opened summer programs. “We signed up right away,” Ms. Farah said. “We really wanted her to get back out there and socialize, and for me to come back to work.” And they wanted to support the school.
Those in the program were organized into small groups, each with a dedicated teacher, and they were outside as much as possible.
In September, Ms. Farah said, “things became a little more normalized.” All the parents signed a “co-responsibility pact,” promising to measure temperatures and keep children home if they were sick. Parents are no longer allowed to enter the school; drop-off takes place outside. The teachers are wearing masks, but the children are not.
“So far, it’s going great,” Ms. Farah said. “I do think it’s going to be a very long school year.” Every runny nose will raise alarms, she said, and “you want to make sure you’re not the one shutting the school down.” When Zoe had a runny nose, the pediatrician felt she didn’t need a Covid test, but should stay at home until her symptoms resolved.
And Zoe is happy. “She loves it, it’s never a challenge to get her there,” Ms. Farah said. “I never had any doubt that going back to school was the right thing for her.” She quoted the Italian aphorism, I bambini devono stare con i bambini, children should be with children: “We want Zoe to be around other kids, to argue with other children, to share with other children.”
Mary Barbera, 45, who works in study-abroad student affairs, has lived in Florence since 1997 and has a 7-year-old daughter, Livia, in second grade in a local public school. When the lockdown happened last spring, the teachers initially tried to teach her class of 20 together remotely. “That was just chaos,” Ms. Barbera said. So they broke the class up into small groups and tried a variety of online platforms and strategies.
“At first my daughter was really upset because of the social element that was missing, she just kept saying, why did they take my school and my friends away?” Ms. Barbera said. “When she realized the whole world was sort of in the same boat, she settled into a routine of homework every day, doing lessons online with teachers.” Her mother, meantime, was working remotely full time, and also trying to supervise lessons and homework.
“The teachers were very sensitive to how kids were taking the lockdown, how each child was doing,” Ms. Barbera said. “She did piles and piles of homework — I think when the school year was over, she felt relieved.”
Livia went back to school on Sept. 14, though only for half days. I told her mother that I was interested to hear that all 20 children had returned, and that I was generally struck by the trust that many in Italy express in the school and government authorities.
“Personally, I think Italians have a better inherent sense of common good and taking care of each other,” Ms. Barbera said. “They understand that in order for people to be well, everyone has to follow the rules.”
Arrival at school is staggered, so children aren’t all crowding in at once, and like many other schools in Italy, they are awaiting new desks to make physical distancing easier (the old ones seat two students). In the meantime, they push four tables together to make a very big square, and four children sit around each table, 12 of them in the classroom and eight in the library.
The children wear masks when they go in to school, and when they stand up in class, leave the room or work together, but can unmask as they sit at their desks. The big glass doors onto the yard are open. The teachers are wearing masks; many teachers in Italy are over 60, and have expressed concern about infection.
“My daughter is so happy to be back at school, but everything is strange,” Ms. Barbera said. Formerly, the school had emphasized common materials; now it’s all about having your own markers, your own pencils.
“The kids generally are very happy to be together, but they can’t hug each other and play the way they used to.”
The plan is to extend the school day, with the cafeteria providing them with meals to be eaten at their desks, and to have them back full-time by Oct. 5. But of course, what everybody knows is that nobody knows what will happen in any given school, any district, any region, or any country. We’re all worrying, we’re all hoping for the best.
“She’s thrilled to be back in school, to have her school back, but you can tell she feels like it’s a little bit strange, so we just talk about it a lot,” Ms. Barbera said. “We’re helping each other, trying to pull together, I think the school is doing everything it can.”