Italian schools are set to reopen in September after they were closed in March due to the coronavirus crisis. But things are expected to be very different in the new academic year.
Most regions' schools will go back on September 14th, while the Bolzano region restarts classes on the 7th. However some regions including Puglia and Calabria have delayed reopening until the 24th.
The Ministry of Education published a list of new safety protocols for schools earlier this month, which Education Minister Lucia Azzolina promised will protect the health of students and teachers, and will also improve education in the long term – notably by bringing an end to overcrowded, “chicken coop classes”.
Teachers' unions have agreed to the proposals, meaning that schools can begin applying them before the new term starts on September 14th.
The guidance leaves a lot to each head teacher's discretion – and it certainly doesn't answer all the questions that children, parents and teachers may have about resuming class after more than six months.
Some uncertainty remains however, and ministers are expected to make further announcements clarifying some points ahead of reopening.
For now, here's what we do know.
Will kids and teachers have to take coronavirus tests?
There's no national rule that you have to get tested before returning to school.
But the government has promised to give all teachers – public and private – the possibility of taking a free, voluntary coronavirus test either before the new term or during it.
It says it will also carry out periodic testing on students, though on selected samples rather than en masse. Mostly, though, the government is relying on parents to monitor their children's health and keep kids home if their temperature rises above 37.5 degrees C or if they show any signs of respiratory illness.
What happens if there's a positive case at school?
The government is leaving schools the option of continuing to teach some of their lessons online – but not all of them.
Schools can alternate in-person lessons with remote teaching, the protocol says, though elsewhere the government has stressed the importance of getting all pupils – especially younger ones – back in class as much as possible.
Remote teaching is most likely to remain a possibility for older students, who may find they spend fewer full days on campus.
Will students have to wear face masks?
Face masks are mandatory for all children over the age of six when they're on school premises, except for in gym class, when eating in canteens and answering a teacher.
Teachers, other staff and parents will be required to wear face masks inside the school premises.
High school students take a socially distanced final exam. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
Will classrooms be socially distanced?
Yes: the safety protocol stresses the need to ensure a distance of at least one metre (about 3 feet) between pupils throughout school premises.
It's left up to each school to decide how to arrange their classrooms accordingly – though the government has put out a tender for more than two million one-person desks, which are hoped to remove the need for students to wear masks in class.
Schools are still awaiting the arrival of the desks. But some schools may not receive their desk deliveries before October, as factories producing them arre reportedly working around the clock ahead of the reopening date.
While a committee of experts previously advised against teaching in gyms and courtyards, saying they should be reserved for sport and aren't suited to other lessons, the government has left the choice up to schools.
Giving lessons off the premises will be permitted, though only in places that local authorities or owners certify as safe. Schools will be offered funds to rent additional space, Education Minister Azzolina says.
Schools will have to designate routes through hallways to avoid crowding, and students won't be allowed to linger in the corridors or other shared spaces.
Will class sizes be cut?
Azzolina says it's a priority to end what she calls “chicken coop classes” with too many pupils per room, though the government hasn't set a national limit on class sizes.
It will hire an extra 40,000 permanent teachers for Italian public schools, Azzolina has promised, mainly at the nursery and primary level.
Children in the earliest school years should be separated into small groups to serve as 'social bubbles', the government said in separate guidance for kindergartens.
Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
How will the school run work?
Entrances and exits must be kept separate to reduce crowding, and schools can opt to stagger entry times: in Rome, for instance, local authorities have designated two phases for schools to admit pupils, one at 8:30 am and the other at 9:30 am.
Only one parent or guardian at a time should accompany their child to school. And schools are advised to keep a register of everyone who accesses the premises for contact tracing purposes.
The government doesn't require schools to check pupils' temperature upon arrival, though some may choose to do it anyway.
Will school lunches be served?
School cafeterias can continue to operate, but may have to stagger meal times for the sake of social distancing. Schools are advised to allow kids to eat in their own classrooms if necessary.
Buffets are banned: food should be served in single portions, on separate trays and with disposable plates, cups and cutlery.
How will schools look after pupils' mental health?
Psychological support is an “indispensable precaution” for pupils and teachers alike as they readjust to returning to school, the Education Ministry says.
It has signed an agreement with the National Order of Psychologists to offer assistance with stress, anxiety, isolation and other common mental health issues, though it's not clear exactly what the arrangement involves.
Will schools be ready in time?
The latest guidance doesn't clear up all the uncertainties for schools, by any means. Among the ongoing issues raised by unions are how schools will manage to social distance with the space available and a shortage of janitors to handle the carry out the extra cleaning required.
The Education Ministry says it has set up a help line for schools to seek further guidance, which will be available from August 24th – three weeks before schools reopen.
In total it has budgeted €2.9 billion to cover the adjustments.