Back in February we took a short mid-term break to visit family and friends in the UK and, until Monday, our kids hadn’t been back to school since. So, it was with a stomach-churning mixture of anxiety and relief that we braced ourselves for the school run that we had feared might never come.
For our eldest, an active and sociable 12-year-old who transitions from the first to second year of scuola media (middle school), the re-entry was relatively straight-forward. He’s been in regular contact with his friends and teachers during the lockdown, but for him home-schooling had run its course.
For our youngest, self-contained and shy, making the transition from scuola materna (nursery school) to scuola elementare (primary school) would have been challenging enough in the best of circumstances.
Now he’s starting at a new school where he barely knows anyone and has had no contact with the teachers who will guide him through the next five years of his education (a peculiarity of the Italian system is that primary school teachers stay with their class for the entire five year term).
On top of that, new regulations require him to wear a mask and keep a distance from his classmates and teacher. It’s not how we ever envisaged his first day at primary school.
Children arriving at a school in Rome on Monday September 14th. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
A list of symptoms, including fever, cough, conjunctivitis, headache, diarrhoea, runny nose/blocked nose etc, has been circulated, any one of which would preclude a child from going to school. Any child with a temperature of 37.5 degrees celsius or above must be kept at home, triggering a period of isolation and testing, the culmination of which would be a decision by a paediatrician on whether the child could return to school.
Italian kids are prone to fever, especially in the autumn when the climatic conditions change so dramatically, so there is a sense that the whole system is now on a knife edge.
With two weeks to go before the schools reopened, we still hadn’t heard anything from our son’s education authority, far less from the school itself. No timetable, no designated teacher, no confirmation of the new measures that would be introduced in response to the Covid situation.
As September 14th drew closer, we were becoming increasingly anxious, as we knew there would be a raft of new materials to acquire and procedures to follow. We didn’t even know if our kids would be at school every day or whether their classes would be divided, with pupils attending remotely on an alternate basis.
Finally, with about a week remaining, the floodgates opened. Meetings with teachers were scheduled at short notice, parents’ WhatsApp groups buzzed with updates and queries, and a flood of directives, advisory notes and factsheets were distributed.
We even did something that we’ve avoided so far in the nine years we’ve been in Italy – we bought a thermometer!
Italy is famous for its absurd levels of bureaucracy. But, in the current crisis, where systems, processes and procedures are vital, I think Italy is actually being well-served by its bureaucrats. Track and trace systems, procedures for dealing with absences from school, tests for thousands of teachers, all of these things are only possible thanks to the vast army of bureaucrats at Italy’s disposal.
Schools have made masks, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer available to students and staff. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
As the first day loomed, we were feeling slightly overwhelmed. On the last day of the “holidays”, we took a trip to Parco Sigurtà, a 60-hectare haven of trees, lawns and ponds to the south of Lake Garda. It was the perfect place to unwind on the eve of such a momentous day.
That night our eldest couldn’t sleep. “I’m nervous about tomorrow.” “Me too,” I confessed. We had a cuddle and I tried to reassure him that everything would be ok. I went back a few minutes later and he was fast asleep.
After breakfast the next morning, I discovered our 6-year-old had gone back to bed. “I don’t want to go school,” he informed me.
Reaching for the first toy I could lay my hands on, I handed him a tiny Buzz Lightyear figure. “Put this in your pocket,” I told him. “If you feel anxious, touch it for courage.” “I can’t,” he replied. “I’m not allowed to take toys to school.”
And it was true. Kids have been told not to bring any personal items to school.
“You keep it, daddy,” he offered.
In the event, the first day passed off without incident. As with so many formative experiences in their lives this year, the kids rose to the challenge.
I’m keeping Buzz in my pocket though. Just in case.
Richard Hough has lived in Verona since September 2011 and writes about the region’s history, football, wine and culture. His first book, Notes from Verona, a short collection of diary entries from inside locked down Italy, is available here. He is currently researching his next book about wartime Verona.