Absent teachers and no desks: Italian PM vows to fix problems with school reopening

Some of Italy's schools are struggling to reopen fully this week, as they lack 100,000 teaching staff as well as desks and supplies.

Absent teachers and no desks: Italian PM vows to fix problems with school reopening
Italy has ordered millions of single-seater desks fo schools, though many will not be delivered until October. Photo: AFP
Italy's Prime Minister on Tuesday vowed to solve the problems reported by local authorities who say they're not able to open schools as planned
Schools began to reopen their doors from Monday September 14th with social distancing rules, masks, and other safety measures in place.
However despite government promises of extra staff and more classroom space, many Italian schools are holding classes online or opening on reduced hours amid a shortage of some 100,000 teaching staff.
“We have worked to ensure that this school year can take place with face-to-face teaching. We are aware of the critical issues and we have worked hard and will continue to do so to overcome them as they arise”, said PM Giuseppe Conte during a visit to a high school in the central italian town of Norcia on Tuesday, Italian media reported.
Italian PM Giuseppe Conte. File photo: AFP
While some 5.6 million of Italy's 8 million schoolchildren are now back in class, seven of Italy's 20 regions have decided to postpone reopening until later this month amid concerns about not being able to open safely.
And within those regions that have reopened, many individual towns have decided to keep schools closed.
The final decision on whether schools can reopen lies with local authorities, who can alter the timetable or the rules around school returns to suit local conditions.
Schools in Rome's Lazio region were set to go back from September 14th. but though the capital's schools have reopened many other towns in the region, including Viterbo and Frosinone, have altered or delayed the return date over safety fears.
Most Italian schools reopened on September 14th. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
For now at least, not all classes will resume at full capacity. In Lazio for example some classes will be online for at least the first month, and at some schools students will go into class for just a few hours each day.
Many schools are still awaiting the delivery of individual desks, some of which are not set to arrive until October, while others say they do not have enough masks.
The Italian government has said that class sizes will be reduced as part of measures to try and prevent the spread of the virus.
Education Minister Lucia Azzolina said she is prioritising an end to overcrowding in what she calls “chicken coop classes” – though the government hasn't set a national limit on class sizes.
Azzolina promised to hire an extra 40,000 permanent teachers for Italian public schools, mainly at the nursery and primary level, and to boost staffing levels temporarily by bringing in trainee teachers.
However as most schools went back on Monday some 100,000 teaching jobs had yet to be filled.
This was partly due to some 13,000 school staff – not all of them teachers – testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies as part of screening carried out last week, leaving many schools understaffed.
Meanwhile, hundreds of teachers with health problems or weakened immune systems have pushed for school authorities to give them leave, and older teachers have also voiced concerns about going back to work.
More than half of Italy's primary and secondary school teachers are over the age of 50, and 17 percent are over 60 – meaning Italy has the oldest teaching workforce in Europe according to OECD figures.

Italian officials said the back-to-school strategy involved immediate quarantine of those “in close contact” with a student or teacher testing positive.
After a positive result, pupils will be allowed back to school only after returning two negatives, carried out a day apart.


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Q&A: What you need to know about Italy’s West Nile virus outbreak

As Italy records a surge in cases of West Nile fever, we look at what the disease is and where in the country it's spreading.

Q&A: What you need to know about Italy's West Nile virus outbreak

Mosquitos are unfortunately one downside of summer in Italy. But as well as being a nuisance, they may also pose a health risk in the country – one of the few in Europe to record cases of West Nile virus (WNV)

READ ALSO: Cases of West Nile fever surge in northern Italy

Last week Italy recorded 50 more cases of the mosquito-borne virus, bringing the total number of infections to 144 according to the latest report from Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS).

This marked a 53-percent increase in cases against the previous week, while ten people have died so far.

As the number of infections continues to rise, here are the answers to the most pressing questions about the disease and the outbreak in Italy.

What is it?

The West Nile Virus (WNV) is a single-stranded RNA virus that can cause West Nile fever in humans.

It’s a member of the Flavivirus family together with other endemic viruses such as the Zika and Dengue viruses.

The virus was first identified in 1937 in Uganda’s West Nile district but has since spread to many other parts of the world, to the point that it is now considered indigenous to Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. 

Carried by birds, West Nile virus is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes.

The West Nile virus is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes of the Culex species, which infect humans and other mammals through their bite, according to Italy’s health ministry.

There is no evidence that human-to-human transmission is possible.

Where are cases being reported in Italy?

Infections have been largely concentrated in the north of the country, especially in the Veneto region, where six people have now died of the disease. Other deaths were recorded in Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna.

The city of Padua, which is located in Veneto’s mainland, around 35 kilometres away from the Adriatic coast, is currently regarded as the hotspot of the virus. 

It isn’t yet clear why Veneto has been the worst-hit region so far, but experts fear that its marshy lowlands might be the perfect breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes. 

A mosquito of the Culex species viewed under a microscope.

Mosquitoes of the Culex species, a specimen of which is pictured above, are responsible for transmitting the West Nile Virus to humans and other mammals. Photo by Jon CHERRY Getty Images / AFP

How severe is the outbreak in Italy?

West Nile virus is not new to Italy. However, this summer has brought the highest number of cases recorded yet.

National infection levels remain relatively low but the country has by far the largest number of cases in Europe.

According to the most recent report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), dated August 3rd, 94 out of 120 recorded cases were in Italy.

Greece had 23 reported cases. Romania and Slovakia had two and one respectively. 

Italy is the only European country that has reported fatalities.

What are the symptoms?

According to the Italian Higher Health Institute (ISS), around 80 percent of infected people show no symptoms whatsoever.

In symptomatic cases, however, symptoms generally resemble those of a common flu and include fever, headaches, nausea and diarrhoea. 

The infection is usually only dangerous for people with weakened immune systems such as the elderly, and the most severe symptoms occur in fewer than one percent of infected people.

In healthy people, the virus is unlikely to cause more than a headache or sore throat, and symptoms generally last only a few days.

According to the data currently available, around one in 150 infected people can show symptoms as serious as partial vision loss, convulsions and paralysis. 

In very rare cases (around 0.1 percent, or one in 1000) the disease can cause brain infections (encephalitis or meningitis) which may eventually be fatal.

Brazilian biologists handle mosquito larvae.

There is currently no vaccine against West Nile disease, though several are being tested. Photo by Apu GOMES / AFP

Is there a cure?

There is no vaccine against West Nile fever. “Currently vaccines are being studied, but for the moment prevention consists mainly in reducing exposure to mosquito bites,” the ISS states.

There is also no specific treatment for the disease caused by the virus.

Patients showing the more serious symptoms are usually admitted to hospital and treated with IV fluids and assisted ventilation.

What should you do to protect yourself?

Seeing as there is currently no vaccine against the virus, the best way to protect oneself is by reducing exposure to mosquitoes as much as possible.

Italian health authorities have listed a number of official recommendations to help residents avoid mosquito bites. These include: 

  • Use repellent
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers when being outdoors and especially during ​​mosquitoes’ peak activity times, i.e. sunrise and sunset
  • Use mosquito nets on your windows or sleep in rooms with air-conditioning and keep the windows closed
  • Make sure there are no pools of stagnant water around your house

See more information about West Nile virus in Italy on the health ministry’s website.