Back to school: What are Italy’s new Covid restrictions in classrooms?

As millions of children gear up for a return to school, Italy has updated its quarantine rules in its latest set of anti-Covid measures.

Covid restrictions in Italy’s schools will change with the new year.
Covid restrictions in Italy’s schools will change with the new year. Marco Bertorello / AFP

The Italian government issued a new decree on Wednesday evening that contains new Covid restrictions aimed at limiting infection rates among schoolchildren while keeping remote learning as a last resort.

In 2022, Italy’s education ministry is hoping that distance learning, or ‘DAD‘ (‘didattica a distanza’), can be kept to a minimum – but a continued surge in the country’s infection rates threatens to disrupt in-person teaching.

Italy has seen record highs in its Covid infection rates in recent days, with 189,000 new cases registered on Wednesday.

READ ALSO: Italian hospitals inundated with Covid patients

A significant proportion of infections are driven by children, many of whom are either too young to get vaccinated or are still waiting to receive their shot, as the European Medicines Agency only approved the Pfizer Cominarty vaccine for use in five to 11-year-olds in late November.

One previously discussed containment measure was the introduction of a significant delay in school reopenings.

Vincenzo De Luca, the governor of Campania, had called for the return to the classroom to be postponed by 20-30 days to “cool down the contagion peak” and to “develop the largest possible vaccination campaign for the student population,” Sky Tg24 news reported.

That proposal ultimately appears to have been discarded, however, as education minister Patrizio Bianchi maintained his position that it is “fundamental to protect teaching in the classroom”.

Children wait to enter a school in Italy in accordance with anti-Covid rules.
Distance learning rules in schools across Italy change from January. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

With most schools set to reopen as planned between January 7th and January 10th, the government hopes its new regulations will allow in-person learning to go on uninterrupted for the majority of students.

The school quarantine rules contained in the new decree consist of a combination of the use of high-grade FFP2 masks in classrooms where one case has been detected, as well as mixed integrated remote and in-person teaching in classes that have had more than one case, with a student’s continued presence in school dependant on their having been recently vaccinated or boosted.

In nurseries and kindergartens, a single case of Covid will result in the institute being required to shut down for 10 days, as young children still can not be vaccinated and infections are likely to spread very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What’s in Italy’s latest Covid decree?

In primary schools, a single case will not trigger an immediate shut down, but will require immediate rapid antigen testing for every class member on day zero and again five days after the case was first detected. Classes with two or more positive cases will revert to remote learning for 10 days.

In secondary schools, 10 days of remote learning for the entire class is triggered only where there are three or more positive cases.

With a single positive case, the entire class will continue in-person learning with FFP2 face masks; with two positive cases, the recently-vaccinated or boosted will remain in the classroom, while those students who are not boosted and underwent their primary vaccination cycle more than 120 days ago will switch to remote learning.

According to a recent report by the Italian Federation of Health and Hospital Companies, Fiaso, based on a review of a data from a representative sample of hospitals, the number of children hospitalised with Covid doubled in the seven days between December 28th and January 3rd.

Most of those children admitted to hospital with Covid are quickly discharged unless they present with persistent symptoms or have comorbidities, Dr. Giuseppe Banderali, vice president of the Italian Society of Pediatricians and director of Pediatrics and Neonatology at the Hospital San Paolo of Milan, told the news daily La Repubblica in a recent interview.

However, he noted that “with the increase in infections, there is an increase in hospitalizations and in children who need special care. Particularly in the range of unvaccinated children, under 12 years of age, because the obstacle to the virus is the vaccine and it spreads more rapidly in a population that is not vaccinated.”

With this in mind, “we must convince parents that the vaccine is especially useful for children and to their social relationships,” Dr. Banderali concluded.

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Italy lifts mask mandate for private sector workers

Masks will no longer be required in the workplace but Italian companies will have the right to impose restrictions for employees deemed "at risk".

Italy lifts mask mandate for private sector workers

Representatives from the Italian Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Health and all major national unions collectively signed off on Thursday a new “shared protocol” (protocollo condiviso) for the implementation of anti-Covid measures in private workplaces. 

Although the full text of the bill will only be made available to the public sometime next week, portions of the document have already been released to the media, thus disclosing the government’s next steps in the fight against the virus.

The most relevant update concerns face masks, which will no longer be mandatory in private workplaces. 

However, the text specifies, FFP2 face masks remain “an important protective item aimed at safeguarding workers’ health”. As such, employers will have the right to autonomously impose the use of face coverings on categories of workers considered “at risk”.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Notably, face coverings may remain mandatory for those working in “indoor settings shared by multiple employees” or even in “outdoor settings where social distancing may not be practicable”. Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions (soggetti fragili) may also be subject to such rules, which, it is worth reminding, are left to the employer’s discretion. 

Alongside mask-related restrictions, employers will also have the right to have their staff undergo temperature checks prior to entering the workplace. In such cases, anyone with a body temperature higher than 37.5C will be denied access to the workplace and will be asked to temporarily self-isolate pending further indications from their own doctor.

In line with previous measures, companies will be required to continue supplying sanitising products free of charge and regulate access to common areas (canteens, smoking areas, etc.) so as to avoid gatherings.

Additionally, employers will be advised to keep incentivising smart working (lavoro agile), as it has proved to be “a valuable tool to curb infection, especially for at-risk individuals”.

Provided that the country’s infection curve registers no significant changes, the updated protocol will remain in place until October 31st, when it will yet again be reviewed by the relevant governmental and social parties. 

With the latest round of measures, Italy has now scrapped all Covid-related health measures, except the requirement to wear face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings, and self-isolation provisions for those testing positive. 

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

Italy’s infection curve has been rising significantly since the beginning of June. From June 1st to June 14th, Covid’s R (spreading rate) rate rose back over 1 for the first time since April 8th. Also, from June 17th to June 23rd, the virus’s incidence rate was 504 cases every 100,000 residents, up by 62 per cent on the previous week.

According to Claudio Mastroianni, Professor of Infectious Diseases at Sapienza University of Rome, “with 25 per cent of daily Covid swabs coming back positive and a R rate over 1, the infection curve will likely rise at least until mid-July”.

However, albeit acknowledging the rising number of positive cases, Deputy Health Minister Andrea Costa has so far categorically excluded the possibility of re-introducing lapsed Covid measures, saying that it’ll be a “restriction-free summer”.