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April 14, 2020
With more than 21,000 victims, Italy has the second-highest coronavirus death toll in the world. The crisis has prompted the Italian government to adopt strict measures to prevent further spread of the virus—including freezing the entire Italian school system.
As a result, 8.4 million students have been forced to switch to online learning for an indefinite period of time—a transition that’s proven challenging for a country that’s fifth-to-last among EU members in digital performance. According to a 2018 report from the National Institute of Statistics, one in four Italian families lack stable, efficient internet access. And while many may have a device of some kind, they often lack the knowledge to use it effectively. Furthermore, Europe’s generally older teaching workforce means there’s a consistent digitalization gap between students and teachers.
Fortunately, schools have been able to take advantage of video-conferencing capabilities and free digital learning services, many of which have been collected in the online platform Solidarietà Digitale (literally Digital Solidarity). The Ministero dell’Istruzione (the Italian equivalent of the U.S. Department of Education) has also activated an online page with a number of cloud tools and platforms to support distance learning. As a result, 82 percent of Italian schools have made the transition to online learning since the outbreak—although only 18 percent had prior experience using such services.
Nevertheless, even with consistently available technological tools and internet access, educators still struggle to coordinate various school activities. “The government encouraged us to use all these powerful resources, but nobody said how,” said Maria G. Francioni, a middle school teacher and vice principal in central Sardinia. “Every school had to figure out its own way to make the online lessons work, which was different between teachers and classrooms. We had to coordinate on the platform to use, how to share documents, how to deliver tests, how to communicate with students, and we had to teach them how to do it … Some students didn’t have their own personal computer or device, and we collaborated with the local police to bring the school ones to their homes.”
“It has been grinding, and we are a small school,” she added. “Coordination difficulties exponentially grow with the size of the school.”
And on top of everything, there’s the pervasive loss and trauma of the pandemic. “The virus here has killed grandparents, mothers, and fathers in almost all the families of my students and teachers”, wrote a school director in Bergamo. “Long story short, terror, depression, and bewilderment have strongly influenced the initial didactic impetus and all the goodwill of teachers and pupils.” Online lessons diminish in importance for students and teachers who have lost, or are about to lose, a loved one.
In an attempt to generate more resources and support for Italian students and educators, the government has approved a bill allocating 85 million euros to online learning improvement—including providing technological devices to low-income students and educating teachers on cloud resources. The most recently approved act includes guidance for evaluating students’ performance during the pandemic and preparing them for online graduation exams (in the likely scenario that schools won’t reopen before May 8).
While it remains to be seen how helpful this funding will be, the pandemic has already proven that schools are resilient—even in the face of an unprecedented crisis. In Italy, students have collaborated with teachers, directors with parents, local leaders with the national government, in the service of one overarching tenet: Education is indispensable, and it must go on.