Italian kids battle school shutdown to curb coronavirus
'The kids are right to protest. I wish I could take to the streets with them,' said government scientific adviser Agostino Miozzo.
ROME — Italian children protesting against the decision to close schools to help control the spread of coronavirus now have some powerful allies — the government’s leading scientific advisers on the pandemic.
Schools reopened in September after a six-month closure, one of the longest in Europe. But when the second wave hit in November, all secondary students and most middle school classes were told to stay home again.
The school shutdown prompted 12-year-old Anita Iacovelli from Turin to protest. In a move that has been compared to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, she set up her desk and laptop on the street outside her school in front of a sign that read “Learning at school is our right.” Soon her classmates were joining the chilly demonstration and the Schools for Future movement — which recalls Thunberg’s Fridays for Future — was gathering momentum, with protests springing up around the country.
Agostino Miozzo, the coordinator of the government’s scientific committee, told Italian daily La Stampa that “the entire committee agree that the right to school should be absolute in our country.”
Miozzo, a surgeon, added: “If it were up to me I would have reopened the schools … The kids are right to protest. I wish I could take to the streets with them.”
Whether to reopen schools after the first wave of lockdowns and the summer holiday has been a dilemma for governments across Europe. Most have opted to prioritize education by opening schools with extra measures such as mask-wearing, smaller classes and extra ventilation. In the process, frazzled parents have been freed up to work, instead of struggling with home lessons.
Over the weekend, the Italian government relaxed COVID-19 restrictions in several regions, allowing middle school students to go back to school. But despite the green light from Rome, regional authorities are still keeping the older middle school students home in Umbria, Calabria and Piedmont.
The decision has angered parents and students, because activities that directly benefit the economy, such as shopping, are now permitted. A new shopping center was even allowed to open in Rome — something Miozzo denounced as “shameful.”
“It is much easier to close a school than to delay the opening of a new shopping center, partly because children do not get a vote,” he added.
He asserts that children are more likely to catch the virus if they stay home from school. So far, 11 percent of COVID-19 cases in Italy in November affected under 19-year-olds and there have been only eight deaths in the age group out of more than 50,000 deaths in the country overall.
Minister for Education Lucia Azzolina of the 5Star Movement told Italian TV that it was “wrong to create conflict between productive sector and school,” adding “they are both fundamental.”
One of the main impediments to reopening is concern over adequate public transport, which has not been expanded to allow for socially-distanced travel by students. But Azzolina claims that transport was working well in small towns while in big cities arrivals had been staggered to avoid overcrowding.
Gloria Ghetti, a history and philosophy teacher in the northern city of Faenza, and spokesman for campaign group Priorita Alle Scuole (Priority to Schools) accused the authorities of being shortsighted in prioritizing the economy.
“They are trying to cut down on cases by keeping students home, but in the long run if we don’t invest in our children they will be economically disadvantaged,” she said.
Doctors have noted a rise in psychological problems in children including anxiety, sleep disorders and inability to concentrate, she said, adding that children are missing out on developing their personalities in a social context, which will make them less able to compete in the job markets with their European counterparts.
“The government should listen to its own experts and parents and students,” said Ghetti. “Christmas presents wont make up for the harm done.”