While some in the north of the country already returned this week, the majority of Italy's around eight million schoolchildren go back on Monday after the coronavirus outbreak shuttered all schools in early March.
Italy was the first European country to suffer a major outbreak of Covid-19, and has now suffered more than 35,500 deaths.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Wednesday that a safe return to school was “a beacon of the government.”
He said fresh infections in schools were “only to be expected”, but that the government has done “the maximum” to ensure safe conditions for reopening.
“Thank you, you have paid the highest price in this crisis,” he said, addressing schoolchildren during a televised news conference on Wednesday evening.
Conte also reiterated government promises to cut class sizes, saying there will be “no more classrooms packed out like chicken coops”.
Most Italia schools are busy peparing for the return of students on September 14th or later. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
Education Minister Lucia Azzolina stressed: “It was right to close when we did, but now we must reopen.”
“Schools are the least risky places there are,” she said.
However, some schools have voiced concerns that a feared shortage of teaching staff and classroom space may make it difficult for them to follow government guidelines, news agency Ansa reports.
Most schools are set to go back on September 14th.
But several Italian regions including Abruzzo, Puglia and Calabria have already postponed reopening until September 24th over concerns about being ready to meet all the coronavirus requirements.
While the government has promised millions of new individual desks for pupils, Conte confirmed on Wednesday that some schools will not receive the new desks until the end of October.
At Rome's Luigi Einaudi technical high school, staff were hard at work this week to “covid-proof” the premises and prepare for the return of its 1,000 pupils.
“We're a completely different school compared to the one on March 6th,” said principal Diana Guerani, referring to the date on which the Lazio region closed classrooms as the virus tightened its grip on Italy.
“It's a completely new situation, but we have to face it,” Guerani told AFP, as outfitters noisily moved in new single-seat desks to be placed a
mandatory one metre (3.3 feet) apart.
“We want to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible,” she added.
Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
The school, which opened 58 years ago and is named after Italy's second president and anti-fascist journalist, is a stone's throw away from Saint
Peter's Basilica in nearby Vatican City.
As well as special tape on the floor indicating the direction of movement, the school has added numerous hand sanitiser dispensers, provided by the Italian government – which has pledged that 170,000 litres of disinfectant gel will be available per week across the country.
All Italian pupils over the age of six will have to wear face masks at all times, though there is discussion of relaxing this rule when pupils are seated.
At the school's entrance, a scanning camera will set off an alarm if a pupil has a temperature or enters without wearing a mask.
“Pupils identified with a high temperature are immediately isolated and brought to a special 'covid' room where protocols have been put in place” to test for the virus, teacher Marina Di Foggia said.
The room has a separate exit, from which any ill pupils can then leave for home, she told AFP.
Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
And a programme introduced in September last year – to teach outdoor classes at Luigi Einaudi “as long as the weather holds” – is also being
broadened out, Guerani said.
Meanwhile, in the northern city of Milan, which was particularly hard-hit by the virus, some pupils were already back in school this week.
Laura Bonnano, 16, said that she was happy to see her friends again after six months at home.
“Wearing a mask all day is a bit tedious,” she told AFP, adding: “After a while you get used to it.”
Transport Minister Paola De Micheli also addressed the press conference, confirming that face masks would remain compulsory on public transport including school buses, and that public transport could not run at more than 80 percent capacity.
However school buses could be at full capacity if the journey time was under 15 minutes, she said.
Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
Italian officials say the country's back-to-school strategy revolves around the immediate quarantine of those who have been “in close contact” with a student or teacher testing positive for Covid-19.
After a positive result, pupils will only be allowed back to school following two subsequent negative ones, carried out a day apart.
Close communication between families and schools will also be key, with schools undertaking rigorous roll-calls to trace absent students and contacts in case of infection.
Italy's Covid-19 scientific advisory board has recommended even stricter measures, including banning singing due to the risk of spreading the virus.
However this and other measures are yet to be confirmed by ministers as they continue to wrangle with regional authorities ahead of reopening.
Opposition politicians have put forward a motion of no confidence in educaton minister Azzolina, saying the plans for school reopening are “chaotic”.
Last week, a study by the Save the Children charity found that seven out of 10 Italian parents were worried about sending their children back to school – mainly because of safety concerns and a lack of clarity over new rules.