Italy, the first Covid-19 epicenter outside of China, has used an aggressive testing regime and face coverings to beat back a second wave of the pandemic so far. But as the nation's children prepare to return to the classroom, many schools are taking matters into their own hands -- by chopping up the furniture.
Social distancing is vital to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, but most Italian schools still use old-fashioned "banchi," or benches, that seat multiple students to save space in their cramped classrooms. Single desks are rare, especially in the lower grade levels.
Italian officials have vowed that the country's schools will reopen as normal next month. Many of the rules that will be in force for the reopening are still under discussion.
"I commit to the young people, to the families, to the country, to teachers, and to staff that schools will reopen," Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in an interview published Wednesday in local newspaper Corriere Della Sera. "I have no doubt."
Most of the specifics of the reopening are still in doubt, however.
Also on Wednesday, Minister of Education Lucia Azzolina gave the green light to nearly 1 billion euros (1.2 billion U.S. dollars) in new spending on the country's schools, which is in addition to 1.3 billion euros announced previously. Azzolina said classrooms will be limited to 15 students to allow for social distancing, and that as many as 50,000 new teachers will be hired to allow for the creation of new classes.
Protocols announced earlier in the week by the Ministry of Health say that a single student testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, would require the entire classroom to be put under quarantine.
There are rules in place for parents who bring young students to school and for disinfecting classrooms.
But rules for bathrooms, cafeterias, and kitchens, and for testing students for the coronavirus or for the virus' antibody, and rules unique to each school regarding transportation and movement between classrooms are all still pending. Teachers report that school administrators have told them to prepare for a wave of new information later this month.
"It's important we find a way to reopen schools: the socialization and the learning that takes place in school is essential to the development of students, especially the youngest students, and it is an important step toward a return to normalcy," Manuela Calza, the national secretary of FLC CGIL, the main teachers' trade union, told Xinhua.
The reopening of schools is having a ripple effect across the country. Media reports, for example, state that education officials have so far fielded nearly 450,000 applications for the new teaching slots. Additionally, furniture makers say they cannot satisfy the demand for 2.4 million news desks that will be needed before schools can reopen.
Meanwhile, some teachers' gilds are miffed at the quick changes in rules for teachers and staff have demanded they be more deeply involved in discussions for the upcoming school year and have threatened to walk off the job for two days in late September if they are not. In Emilia-Romagna, unions say the reopening should be delayed to allow more time to prepare.
"It's an enormous challenge, on many different fronts," Daniele Grassucci, co-founder of the Skuola Network, an education portal, said in an interview.
"There are endless examples of things that have to be taken into consideration," he said. "Do you measure the distance between students from shoulder to shoulder or from mouth to mouth? Many schools don't have the space for extra classrooms. What if the new desks aren't ready in time? Officials working to make this happen have a thousand areas to study."