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SCHOOLS

Schools update: Italy makes a U-turn on Covid distance learning rules

In under 24 hours, the Italian authorities have changed the rules on distance learning again, scrapping the revised plans to return an entire class to distance learning if just one infection is recorded.

Schools update: Italy makes a U-turn on Covid distance learning rules
Italy has tightened the Covid health restrictions in schools amid rising case numbers. Photo: Marco Bertorello /AFP

The rules on when distance learning – or ‘DAD‘ (‘didattica a distanza’) as it’s known in Italy – is triggered in schools have changed again: the whole class will automatically go into quarantine only if there are three positives cases detected.

Just one day after announcing tighter restrictions to keep the spread of coronavirus in check within schools, Italian authorities have now promised better support for tracking of cases to avoid activating remote learning.

“There will be no return to DAD in the case of the presence of a single infected pupil,” government sources told news agency Ansa.

The revised rules “will intensify testing activities in schools, in order to strengthen the tracking”, because “ensuring attendance in presence and the conduct of lessons at school in absolute safety is a priority of the government,” they added.

After studying the health situation in schools along with the Scientific and Technical Committee (CTS), Italy’s coronavirus emergency commissioner, Francesco Figliuolo, backed the move and guaranteed support for improved tracing.

The decision comes less than a day after the authorities announced that quarantine would apply immediately for the whole class – and distance learning would replace the physical classroom – if a single pupil was found to test positive for Covid-19.

The new regulation was confirmed in a circular on Tuesday and signed by the Ministry of Health’s director of prevention, Giovanni Rezza, according to reports.

Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Authorities had given the green light to the move based on concern over the sudden increase in school-age infections, as well as worries over the rising cases of the Omicron variant, while the regions had requested to tighten up the rules on the management of quarantines at school.

READ ALSO: ‘Get vaccinated’: Italian virologists urge caution over Omicron Covid variant

The increasing weekly incidence of the number of new infections in schoolchildren was cited as a cause for concern, amounting to 125 per 100,000 in the period November 19th – 25th, according to official data from Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS).

These figures are “a far cry from the optimal value of 50 per 100,000,” which allows for better tracking of cases, according to the details of the circular.

The latest rules on distance learning

The rules as they now stand (again), therefore, dictate that distance learning will be triggered – or rather will continue to be triggered – with just one positive in class for children up to the age of six, where it is more difficult to maintain distance and since masks are not compulsory for this age group.

Quarantine is enforced for classes with two positive cases among pupils aged 6 to 12 – a group currently not eligible for vaccination.

From the age of 12 onwards, a class will go to DAD if there are at least three positive cases, as before.

Speaking on the short-lived decision to change the school rules on quarantine, Deputy Health Minister Andrea Costa said, “We considered it prudent, with a choice shared with the regions, to return to the initial plans.”

He also referred to the headteachers, who had complained about implementing the rules and that it was difficult to track cases.

The President of the Association of Headteachers, Antonello Giannelli, said that the decision to enforce DAD following one positive case was exactly what school leaders had warned about and that they hadn’t been heard.

He said they were ‘Cassandras‘; an Italian term used to refer to people who predict disastrous events without being believed.

Photo: Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

“The schools, despite a thousand difficulties and with an immense workload on the shoulders of managers and staff, have held up,” he said .

“The same cannot be said of the prevention departments, which have not been able to guarantee the timing of testing from the outset, and in many cases have not applied the tracking procedures,” he added.

EXPLAINED: What parents should know about the new Covid rules in Italian schools

Since the beginning of the school year and until now, the rules stipulated that three positive cases in a class would trigger remote learning.

However, many local health authorities struggled to quickly carry out the swabs needed in classes with one or two positive cases. So much so, that some head teachers refused to apply the protocol, according to Italian media reports – a problem the authorities have now pledged to assist with.

In recent weeks, as the number of infections and the number of quarantined classes have increased, regional authorities have begun to push for a return to the more restrictive model previously in place.

Education Minister Patrizio Bianchi spoke on Tuesday of the decision being “an absolutely prudential measure”, taken because “we want to keep schools absolutely safe” – even if the ministry’s priority is to keep “teaching in presence”.

The decision on Tuesday came as a cause of concern for the trade unions, who expressed worries about implementing the new rules.

“We have urgently requested a meeting with representatives of the Ministry of Health because the circular has alarmed all school staff and produced new problems for managers who will have to review the procedures for tracking again,” stated Maddalena Gissi of the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions (CISL).

The U-turn on strategy is intended to prevent exactly this eventuality and to maintain school attendance – Italy’s education minister Patrizio Bianchi said at the beginning of the school year that, “We will never return to DAD”.

The government implemented steps to ensure that pupils could learn in person, after constantly changing Covid restrictions kept them in and out of classrooms since February 2020.

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COVID-19 RULES

Will Italy drop its Covid isolation rule as the infection rate falls?

The health ministry is reviewing its quarantine requirements as the country's Covid-19 health situation improved again this week, according to Italian media reports.

Will Italy drop its Covid isolation rule as the infection rate falls?

Italy has taken a more cautious approach to Covid in recent months than many of its European neighbours, keeping strict isolation rules in place for anyone who tests positive for the virus.

But this could be set to change in the coming days, according to media reports, as one of Italy’s deputy health ministers said the government is about to cut the isolation period for asymptomatic cases.

“Certainly in the next few days there will be a reduction in isolation for those who are positive but have no symptoms,” Deputy Health Minister Andrea Costa said in a TV interview on the political talk show Agorà on Tuesday.

“We have to manage to live with the virus,” he said.

Italy’s La Stampa newspaper reported that the compulsory isolation period could be reduced to 48 hours for those who test positive but remain asymptomatic – provided they subsequently test negative after the day two mark.

Under Italy’s current rules, vaccinated people who test positive must stay in isolation for at least seven days, and unvaccinated people for ten days – regardless of whether or not they have any symptoms.

READ ALSO: How tourists and visitors can get a coronavirus test in Italy

At the end of the isolation period, the patient has to take another test to exit quarantine. Those who test negative are free to leave; those who remain positive must stay in isolation until they get a negative test result, up to a maximum of 21 days in total (at which point it doesn’t matter what the test result says).

Health ministry sources indicated the new rules would cut the maximum quarantine period to 15 or even 10 days for people who continue to test positive after the initial isolation period is up, La Stampa said.

The government is believed to be reviewing the rules as the latest official data showed Covid infection and hospitalisation rates were slowing again this week, as the current wave of contagions appeared to have peaked in mid-July.

However, the national Rt number (which shows the rate of transmission) remained above the epidemic threshold, and the number of fatalities continued to rise.

The proposed changes still aren’t lenient enough for some parties. Regional authorities have been pushing for an end to quarantine altogether, even for people who are actively positive – an idea Costa appears sympathetic to.

“The next step I think is to consider the idea of even eliminating the quarantine, perhaps by wearing a mask and therefore being able to go to work,” he told reporters.

“We must review the criteria for isolation, to avoid blocking the country again”.

At least one health expert, however, was unenthusiastic about the proposal.

Dr Nino Cartabellotta, head of Italy’s evidence-based medicine group Gimbe, tweeted on Tuesday: “There are currently no epidemiological or public health reasons to abolish the isolation of Covid-19 positives”

Massimo Andreoni, professor of Infectious Diseases at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of the Tor Vergata University of Rome, was more ambivalent about the prospect.

The isolation requirement for asymptomatic cases should be “revised somewhat in the light of the epidemiological data”, he told reporters, but urged “a minimum of precaution, because the less the virus circulates and the fewer severe cases there are, the fewer new variants arise”.

When the question was last raised at the end of June, Health Minister Roberto Speranza was firmly against the idea of lifting quarantine requirements for people who were Covid positive.

“At the moment such a thing is not in question,” he told newspaper La Repubblica at the time. “Anyone who is infected must stay at home.”

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