Italian schools go digital as coronavirus shuts classrooms


A man cleans an empty class room at the Bicocca University in Milan, Italy, March 2, 2020. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

MILAN (Reuters) - For schoolchildren in northern Italy, the beginning of their second week blocked at home because of coronavirus saw a scramble to adapt digital alternatives to the classroom, ranging from online maths games to homework on Dante sent by WhatsApp.

Schools in several areas have been closed since the coronavirus outbreak just over a week ago and authorities have had to improvise to keep classes going, using school digital platforms and services like Skype, Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom.

"The system has been functioning very well and it's holding up for the moment," said Lucia Balzarini, a religion teacher at the A. Tosi agricultural technical college in Codogno, a town in the quarantined "red zone" where five children have tested positive. "The problem will be in the longer term."

Her school was closed on Saturday, Feb. 22 and by the following Thursday, the virtual system was operational.

Schools have been closed in the northern regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna until at least the end of the week, but with the number of cases in Italy rising to more than 2,000, there is no certainty about when they will reopen.

Many schools have websites and email or electronic messaging groups that have allowed teachers and pupils to stay in touch.

"The school has an electronic registry and I am sending work to my pupils using email and WhatsApp. I gave them a canto of Dante today to study," said Flavia Santonico, a high school teacher in Bologna.

In the red zone in which 10 towns in the Lombardy region around Milan and one town in neighbouring Veneto have been locked down, telecoms operator TIM has temporarily provided unlimited data coverage.

Marco De Rossi, head of WeSchool, an Italian company that develops educational platforms, said the company had seen a three-fold jump in traffic on its platforms last week, with 590,000 active users. He said extra shifts had been added to deal with demand.

"STIR CRAZY"

The Education Ministry has appealed to schools to share their experiences to help adapt to the shutdown and opened a page on its website to help with long-distance learning.

Schools and children have different levels of experience with long-distance learning and, for now, there is no national system.

"There were a few problems at first but it's working great now," said Federico Vita, 11, a pupil at the Ungaretti school in Melzo which started focusing on digital teaching techniques about three years ago.

The state school, near Milan, has "adopted" a school in the red zone in Veneto to share its experience.

The shut down has created a headache for parents forced to find child minders, work from home or take time off.

"My 12-year-old is going stir crazy," said Susan, a mother in Bologna. "And you have to make sure they don't get hooked all day on their mobiles.

"Homework has been coming through, but there have been no virtual classes or lessons or stuff like that organised yet."

Even teachers who say the system has worked well worry about whether pupils will be able to keep learning effectively outside the normal rhythm of the classroom.

Monica Boccoli, a maths teacher in Cremona, who is part of a network of teachers trying to encourage digital educational techniques, works in a school experienced in digital learning for younger pupils. "But managing an emergency is different," she said. "In primary schools, teacher contact remains fundamental".

(Additional reporting by Giulio Piovaccari and Emilio Parodi; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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