Not much is known about how the school will reopen

Less than two months after the reopening of the schools, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the guidelines and the investments needed to avoid the transmission of infections during the face-to-face teaching. Schools closed a few weeks ago, in June, without much news compared to September 2021. The problems reported a year ago by parents, teachers and school leaders are always the same: the ambiguity about the use of masks, the overcrowding of classes, lack of teachers, unclear indications of testing and tracking for students, capacities on means of transport, lack of investment in ventilation systems.

These are concerns that have existed for two years, that is, since the school year started again after the closures due to the first wave of the epidemic. Meanwhile, many things have changed: vaccines have also been approved for children, and in general it seems that the consequences of the new variants of the virus are less serious than the first versions. However, the resurgence of infections observed since mid-June confirms that the epidemic is not over and that attention is still needed, especially in closed and overcrowded places such as schools.

The most felt uncertainty concerns the use of masks. A few days before the start of the state exams in first and second grade high schools, the ministry removed the obligation to wear the mask that was in effect throughout the last school year. As had already happened for the workplace, the government has decided to keep only one recommendation, especially in case of possible gatherings.

No indications have yet been given for September: If new rules are not approved, there is no obligation. Health Minister Roberto Speranza, interviewed during the broadcast In the airhe said, however, that it is still too early to make assessments of a possible renewal of the obligation. “We do not hope so, but it is an assessment that we can only make once we have a clearer epidemiological picture,” he said. “Expressing ourselves today, when there are still two months left, would not be honest.”

The school associations, which have long asked the ministry for clearer indications and an increase in teachers and school staff, argue that with the closure of the technical-scientific committee, there has been a lack of general indications and safer recommendations based on scientific evidence.

“Not knowing whether masks should be worn is a problem: if they are no longer mandatory, other precautions and countermeasures need to be investigated,” said Graziamaria Pastorino of the National Secretariat of the FLC CGIL (Federation of Knowledge Workers). “If there had been a technical-scientific committee, we would have a clearer position and perhaps even a response within a reasonable time.”

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According to Antonello Giannelli, president of the National Association of Principals (ANP), restrictive measures such as the obligation to wear a mask can be decided a few days in advance, so the wait for the new guidelines does not worry him much.

“However, it would be more appropriate to discuss the vaccination campaign, because many boys and girls have not yet joined,” he explains. “The vaccine is important both to have milder symptoms and to reduce the circulation of the virus.” His biggest fears, however, relate to the government crisis a few weeks after school starts, not just for the decisions about the safe reopening. “The absence of a government would have a negative impact on the restart and also the progress of the calls for PNRR, the national recovery and resilience plan, which also involves schools”.

(Cecilia Fabiano / LaPresse)

Last year, the ministry funded the hiring of additional staff to cope with the increased workload of dealing with the epidemic: With more teachers, you can organize classes with fewer students. The contracts had started in September and expired in December, to be renewed only until March 30 and subsequently refinanced until the end of May. The principals were forced to manage the money allocated by the ministry with great difficulty due to the decisions taken a few days after the expiration of the contracts. Again, the organization was insecure and confused.

With the cessation of the state of emergency, which is the state where the government can fund extraordinary measures to cope with an extraordinary situation, it is no longer possible to hire additional staff.

However, both unions and principals have called on the ministry to hire more teachers and administrative staff. “The strengthening of staff is crucial not only for the organization of lessons and classes,” says Giannelli. “At this stage, we can actually not underestimate the handling of the PNRR calls, which is a great opportunity for the schools. I have repeatedly asked the Minister to review the recruitment parameters.”

Although it has been discussed for some time, everything stands still even on the new ventilation systems. Installation of machines for controlled mechanical ventilation will guarantee a constant air exchange and therefore a lower transmission of the virus in a closed environment. With a decree approved in February, the government announced that on March 20, new guidelines would come with the technical specifications for installing systems in schools.

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The guidelines were examined by the National Center for Chemicals, Cosmetic Products and Consumer Protection, the Infectious Diseases Department and the Environment and Health Department of the Higher Institute of Health. However, the document clarifies that ventilation systems alone are not enough to guarantee safety, because ventilation does not replace the measures used so far, such as masks and spaces.

Another problem concerns the principals’ responsibility, called to assess and select the best units: a complicated task, especially without having certainty about the efficiency of the units.

With these premises and despite the expectations the government has raised over the past two years, many principals will wait for clearer indications. Giannelli is skeptical and explains that the money allocated by the ministry should go to the municipalities and not to the schools because the interventions on the structures are up to the local authorities. However, parents and students should not expect anything new for September. “There are currently no specific investments planned,” he says. “However, I would like to point out that it would be an extremely expensive operation, in the order of many billions of euros”.

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