Older Italian teachers and those with underlying illnesses fear the reopening of schools in Italy this week could pose a serious threat to their health.
Millions of children will return to classrooms across 14 Italian regions on Monday, more than six months after schools were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While teachers in other countries have had similar concerns over the risks, Italy stands out for having the oldest teaching workforce in the EU. A report by the OECD published on Tuesday showed that more than half of primary and secondary school teachers are over the age of 50, and 17% are over 60.
At the same time, about 13,000 teaching and non-teaching staff will not immediately return to school after testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies as part of a blanket screening carried out last week, leaving many schools understaffed.
Worries among older teachers and those with health problems, especially those working in primary schools, have been mounting amid confusion over the Covid-19 rules ahead of the new academic year. Almost 15,000 of more than 35,500 deaths attributed to Covid-19 since the start of Italyâ€™s pandemic were among people between the age of 50 and 79, according to a report by the countryâ€™s National Health Institute.
However, the health ministryâ€™s most recent circular does not identify age as a risk factor for teaching during the pandemic.
â€œWe are very, very concerned,â€ said Valentina Balsamo, a 61-year-old who teaches at the NicolÃ² Garzilli primary school in Palermo. â€œI understand that schools must reopen, but as a teacher I donâ€™t feel safe. Teachers will undergo swab and blood testing, but children will not. Elementary school is based on direct physical contact with the children. It wonâ€™t be easy to monitor social distancing.â€
Teachers will have to wear face masks at all times, as will pupils over the age of six. Classrooms have been furnished with single-person desks and placed 1 metre apart. Staff and children will have their temperature taken on arrival, while several hand-gel dispensers will be placed around school buildings. Those who have been in close contact with a student or teacher who tests positive for Covid-19 will be immediately quarantined.
â€œIâ€™ll soon take a serology test, but we all know that I should be tested every day to make sure I have not contracted the virus,â€ said Dora Novara, 66, who teaches at a primary school. â€œGiven my age, Iâ€™ll also take a seasonal flu shot, but I canâ€™t control what my students do when they return home after school.â€
Meanwhile, hundreds of teachers with health problems or who are immunosuppressed recently wrote letters to school authorities asking that they be exempt from service.
The most prevalent illnesses are heart-related, oncological or respiratory.
â€œThere are many colleagues who have these illnesses who want to be with the children and return to work,â€ said Maddalena Gissi, the secretary general of the Cisl teaching union. â€œAnd they want to be able to do that at a distance and teaching smaller groups â€¦ but itâ€™s difficult to do distancing with small children.â€
To be exempt from school, a teacher with an underlying illness must be certified by two doctors as being at risk. According to a recent health ministry notice, only those with very serious illnesses will be exempt from working. If they canâ€™t be in a classroom, they may be offered other roles that they can do at a distance or from home, such as working on a school project or administrative tasks.
â€œWe know there are many cases of teachers with health issues who are afraid,â€ added Gissi. â€œBut the circular from the ministry of health made it clear â€“ doctors must certify absence, itâ€™s not the teacher who decides if they are vulnerable or not.â€
But teachers have been struggling to get certificates from their medics. â€œFor days, Iâ€™ve been trying to reach my doctors to prepare a formal declaration, but itâ€™s impossible,â€ said Sabrina Leo, 51, a preschool teacher who has emphysema, a respiratory disease.
Respiratory complications were responsible for almost 95.3% of deaths attributed to Covid-19, according to data from the National Health Institute.
â€œMy future is unclear,â€ Leo added. â€œWhat I do know is that if I contract coronavirus, my chances of recovery are slim, very slim.â€
Silvia, 44, who suffers from lupus, an auto-immune disease, said she wants to return to work at her secondary school in the central Lazio region, but is afraid. â€œNot only for myself but for my parents, who are elderly. They come to my home as much as possible to help me, this is what worries me. I worked with my illness before Covid and all I want now is to go back safely â€“ I want the right to education to be considered alongside health and work rights.â€