Covid-19: Concerns remain about testing as two-thirds of Italian pupils return to school

Around two thirds of Italian students returned to class on Wednesday, as Italy partially relaxed the coronavirus restrictions which had kept all schools closed since mid-March.

Covid-19: Concerns remain about testing as two-thirds of Italian pupils return to school
Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

Some 5.6 million pupils went back to in-person classes on Wednesday – almost 66% of the 8.5 million pupils enrolled in state and private schools in the country.

The remaining 2.9 million students will continue with distance learning. 

Pupils up to the prima media (the equivalent of sixth grade in the US or Year 7 in the UK) are allowed to return to class in person from Wednesday, even in red zones.

Previously all schools in red zones had to teach remotely. 

Secondary school pupils in upper years will continue following all their lessons remotely in red zones. In orange zones, up to 50 percent of teaching for older pupils will remain online.

Local authorities still have the power to order schools closed, so some primary schools will continue teaching all or part of their lessons online.

Authorities in some regions, such as Puglia, have brought in their own rules allowing parents to choose whether or not to send children to school, while in some towns and municipalities all schools remain closed due to high infection rates.

And even though kindergartens and primary schools are closed, 2.7 million of the youngest pupils will return to class today under rules which guarantee in-person teaching for children with additional needs.

But as class restarts, concerns remain that some local authorities may not be prepared to contain outbreaks of coronavirus in schools.

School students protest in Turin on March 17th against the closure of schools from the seventh grade up. Photo by Marco Bertorello/AFP

Over 80% of Italy’s school staff have now been vaccinated for Covid-19, Antonello Giannelli, the president of the national head teachers’ association, told SkyTg24 on Tuesday.

Teachers were among those in the groups given access to the vaccine first in Italy, as keeping schools open remains a priority for the government.

READ ALSO: Who is in Italy’s Covid-19 vaccine priority groups?

However, it is not known how many have had the second dose needed for full immunization.

Giannelli added that there is a “logistical problem” when it comes to testing and monitoring the spread of coronavirus in Italian schools.

“The number of staff is not yet sufficient to do this operation on a major scale,” he said.

Schools are the only area in which the government has relaxed the coronavirus rules under the latest update.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza said on Friday there were now “very early signs of a slowdown” in infection rates, allowing for some cautious re-openings.

Over the past 13 months, Italian students have had to put up with longer suspensions of face-to-face schooling than most of their peers in Europe.

Italy was the first country in Europe to face the full force of the coronavirus pandemic, and has so far reported more than 110,000 Covid-19-related deaths.

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Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”