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.
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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.