‘Really stressful’: Italians struggle to cope with education closures

Students, parents and teachers are struggling to cope with the Italian government’s decision to close all schools and universities nationwide until 15 March as it grapples to contain Europe’s worst outbreak of coronavirus. The virus had claimed 148 lives in the country by Thursday evening, according to government figures.

“It is not easy,” said Maurizio Bufalini, 45, who works at a court in Ferrara, in Emilia-Romagna. “My wife and I had to use our holidays and paid leave to stay at home with our little daughter. I hope the government will intervene soon, otherwise it will be a disaster.”

Schools were already closed in the northern regions worst affected by the outbreak, including Lombardy, Veneto, Piedmont and Friuli Venezia Giulia, as well as parts of Liguria and Marche, but on Thursday the closures were rolled out across the country in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“I have two children and the little one attends a private kindergarden which is not going to refund the monthly fee,’’ said Rosamaria Battaglia, 33, who works at a nautical agency in Palermo.

“This week we’ll get a babysitter, but hopefully next week we’ll find a more economic solution. Being a mother and a worker in Italy is hard, being a mother and a worker in Italy during the outbreak of Covid-19 is really stressful.”

The government has announced it is making €7.5bn available to help families and companies and is evaluating the possibility of providing support to families, including reimbursements for childcare costs and unpaid leave from work.

“We should not assume that people are home using up holiday pay or paid leave,” Elena Bonetti, the minister for equal opportunities and family, told Radio Capital.

Some experts and scientists have disagreed with the decision to close all schools. An authoritative source at the Italian Scientific Committee told La Stampa that the government’s decision was “evaluated as void of scientific evidence and above all with limited effectiveness if not carried out over time”.

The government says it has the support of the scientific community and has the evidence to prove it. Many teachers and lecturers are continuing to teach students online.

The problems are not only affecting parents, but students as well, especially university students who were poised to graduate in March.

Roberta Bivona, 27, a literature student at the University of Palermo, was scheduled to meet a panel of professors to discuss her honours thesis on 11 March.

“At first they informed me that my thesis defence would take place without observers, who are normally present as audience members,” Bivona said. “Now everything has changed with the closure of universities. Yesterday we received an email from the university rector, who is considering the possibility of thesis defences via Skype.”

Quick guide

What is the coronavirus and should we be worried?

What is Covid-19 – the illness that started in Wuhan?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

Have there been other coronaviruses?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.

What are the symptoms caused by the new coronavirus?

The virus can cause pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. Recovery depends on the strength of the immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

UK Chief Medical Officers are advising anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau in the last 14 days and who is experiencing a cough or fever or shortness of breath to stay indoors and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

China’s national health commission has confirmed human-to-human transmission, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere.

How many people have been affected?

As of 4 March, the global death toll was 3,190, while more than 93,000 people have been infected in more than 80 countries.

The death toll has passed 3,000 in China, where there have been over 80,000 cases. South Korea, the nation worst hit by the outbreak outside China, has had 5,328 cases. More than 44,000 people in China have recovered from Covid-19.

There have been 87 recorded cases and no fatalities to date in the UK. There are 53 confirmed cases in Australia, with two deaths.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2% at the centre of the outbreak, Hubei province, and less than that elsewhere. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Another key unknown is how contagious the coronavirus is. A crucial difference is that unlike flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means it is more difficult for vulnerable members of the population – elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – to protect themselves. Hand-washing and avoiding other people if you feel unwell are important. One sensible step is to get the flu vaccine, which will reduce the burden on health services if the outbreak turns into a wider epidemic.

Is the outbreak a pandemic?

A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed outside China, but by no means in all 195 countries on the WHO’s list. It is also not spreading within those countries at the moment, except in a very few cases. By far the majority of cases are travellers who picked up the virus in China.

Should we panic?

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people, and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact. Generally, the coronavirus appears to be hitting older people hardest, with few cases in children.

Sarah BoseleyHannah Devlin and Martin Belam

University academics are also struggling to cope with the closures.

James Schwarten, an American university lecturer based in Rome, acknowledges the hardships the situation has created. “The coronavirus outbreak has generated a stressful predicament for university institutions that accommodate US study-abroad students, not to mention for university professors,’’ he said. ‘’This adverse situation has created a general climate of uncertainty as many students have already returned to the US, as well as concern for student enrolments in summer and fall, which could be negatively affected. If that scenario is borne out, many adjunct faculty members could find themselves in severe financial straits.”

In the township of Vo’, the first to be placed in the red zone, schools have been dealing with closures for the last 15 days.

A school in Lozzo Atestino, in the province of Padua and in the red zone, has been using remote online learning tools in place of classroom teaching.

“We had to do something,” said Alfonso D’Ambrosio, the headmaster. “The education minister sent us 25 tablets for needy students. We are moving forward with our classes with excellent results … Our curriculum is important, but even more so now is to communicate to the students that the school is their ally. Some of the children’s parents have tested positive for the virus, and at this time we felt the need to support them.”

Many experts have offered to help with the remote lessons, including Luca Vullo, who volunteered to hold classes on emotional intelligence for pupils in Lozzo Atestino. “When I learned of this opportunity, I was compelled to participate voluntarily,” said Vullo, a theatre director, actor and coach. “These are important topics in this precise moment, in which it is necessary to interpret and understand our emotions and our body.”

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