In Italy, the first COVID-19 cases were discovered at the end of January. It was another month before the spread of the virus forced us to suspend face-to-face lessons. At the beginning of March, teachers, in lockdown at home, began distance teaching, while administrative, technical and cleaning staff still had to go to education facilities.
The challenges associated with the closure of schools
Italian trade unions soon had to face two challenges.
The first concerned distance teaching: a lack of digital tools and Internet connections for some teachers and students, longer working hours, increasing pressure on teachers from families and school heads and a lack of specific training, to name just a few.
The unions also mobilised for the complete closure of the establishments to protect education support staff: all administrative activities could be carried out remotely and there was no need to for technicians, caretakers or cleaning staff to turn up.
Remote teaching also triggered discussions about teaching itself. In the absence of a common digital strategy for all schools, each school, and even each teacher, have had to choose their own tools. Often all they have done is replicate face-to-face lessons on video, without any kind of adaptation. There have also been many difficulties concerning student evaluation, because it is impossible to monitor what is going on behind the screen. Finally, an urgent ministerial order has provided for all students to move up to higher levels this year, even if they are not ready in certain subjects.
During these three months, we have also had a change of minister, which was not without its consequences for trade union relations. The new minister, Lucia Azzolina, follows the anti-union policies of her party (the 5-star Movement) to the letter, and has not properly accepted the idea of negotiating the conditions for reopening schools with the unions. In general, we have a problem of social dialogue with this minister, even though the Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, speaks and negotiates regularly with the trade union confederations to determine the conditions for reopening shops and businesses.
The reopening of facilities
Reopening presents many challenges that need to be resolved. First, there is the maturità examination at the end of secondary school. Is it realistic to plan for students to be present to take the examination between now and the end of the school year as has been announced, without risking more spreading of the virus? If we can accept that university students defend their final degree or master’s projects online, why not the maturità examination?
Then there is the recruitment problem: since the 2008 economic crisis, teacher numbers have been cut and some staff hired on precarious contracts. In 2014, the trade union organisations appealed to the European Court of Justice to force the Italian government to give all casual workers proper contracts for at least three years. We believed that was the end of the matter. But, to ensure school starts again on 1 September, almost 80,000 teachers will have to be recruited. Many more caretakers, cleaners and technicians will also have to be taken on. The minister proposes to organise public recruitment processes during the summer, even if we have not yet emerged from the health emergency. We, the unions, propose to make the casual workers who have already been in the system for years permanent. According to the agreement we concluded with the previous minister, there are at least 24,000 of them.
The last challenge we faced concerned health and safety at work. Schools are often overcrowded, with packed classrooms, insufficient spaces for sport and open-air activities, and cramped laboratories for practical activities. In most cases, the local councils have already had to cut school budgets because of the crisis. In September, safe distances will be necessary between students and between students and teachers, which seems impossible under these conditions.
The minister has already announced via Facebook that she is thinking of organising the return to school by alternating face-to-face lessons with distance teaching. In other words, if you have a secondary school class of 25-30 pupils, some will have to do their lessons from home while the others will go to school. This announcement was followed by many protests. In fact, we fear that such a solution will only worsen inequalities and increase teachers’ working hours. Families want nothing of it either. In Italy, the drop-out rate has been reduced thanks to extended school times at all levels. Face-to-face lessons alone will not allow us to catch up with what has been missed during these months of pandemic. Unfortunately, we are dealing with someone whose knowledge of the field – both schools themselves and the administration – leaves something to be desired.
Of course, in this context we are as mobilised as possible. The UILSCUOLA even presented an appeal to the Employment Court for against the minister for disregarding her obligations to the unions. We also organised unitary assemblies online in each province to inform members of our plans. These were very successful, with more participants than usual. Despite our efforts, the minister has not changed her opinion on recruitment nor has she proposed appropriate conditions for reopening in September, which has led all the unions to hold a strike on 8 June and to plan as many new actions as are necessary in the months to come.