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Back to the future: Italian women are facing a 1950s redux

LAST week Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Education Minister Lucia Azzolina announced that the government had allocated €1 billion in funds for safety measures to allow the reopening of schools across the country this autumn.

Azzolina further explained that the Ministry of Education was working on a logistical plan for the extraordinary conditions of the opening of schools on September 14.

Some of the new guidelines that would be put into place would include seating pupils one metre apart, classes being divided into smaller learning groups, and introducing staggered arrival times for students.

However, the parent, teacher and student organisation Priority on School is unimpressed with this announcement — and for good reason.

Earlier this year, in the spring, when Azzolina announced that school would be “part-time” for the coming school year, detailing that children would be conducting much of their learning online from home, Costanza Margiotta, associate professor in legal theory at the University of Padua, launched the action group Priority on School beginning with an open letter to the education minister in April.

Over 82,000 parents signed the open letter to the government urging the opening of schools, underscoring the unmitigated disaster of distance learning throughout Italy’s harsh lockdown (from February 23 in much of the north).

I spoke with many Italian women who felt that the government’s lack of a realistic plan for school in the autumn was a subtle effort to return women to the kitchen and hand men their jobs.

From healthcare workers, lawyers, jewellery makers, and teachers alike, Italian women have spoken out about the grave dangers that lockdown posed to their and their children’s well-being, to include their mental health and education.

For Margiotta and many others, they saw this curtailment of education as a direct threat to women’s rights.

Since April, the Priority on School committee has asked for extraordinary and structural funding for the restart of all schools across the country in September.

The committee also reminded the government of the right to education as required by the Italian constitution such that school must be equally accessible throughout the country, without any class or territorial discrimination.

Had the Italian government continued with its original plan of keeping students at home this autumn, it would have meant that women would largely be the class forced to abdicate their lives and professions as the government’s plans would have kept women in lockdown indefinitely.

So Margiotta and other parents from Priority on School organised the first series of mass demonstrations in support of public education took place in 19 cities on May 23 around the country.

Soon other groups formed such as Open School in Rome around the country as parents were becoming increasingly alarmed by the government’s inaction since schools closed in February.

Even after the May protests, the government still made no announcement on the future of school openings.

Priority on School announced that “the Italian government sacrificed the school on the altar of productivity. In Italy school is not a priority.”

Having received no response from the national government after the May protest, on June 25 a total of 48 organisations and student and educational associations launched a new wave of protests across 60 cities throughout Italy, to include Rome, Milan, Genoa, Bologna, Florence, Pisa and Naples.

The protesters were composed of teachers, students, parents and supporters who again asked the education minister to present a detailed plan with the precise guidelines and sanitary protocols that guarantee the return to school in September. 

As a direct result of these protests, the Italian government has finally responded with a plan to reopen the schools in addition to €1 billion additional funds.

However, Margiotta does not feel this is sufficient.

She says: “The government reduces the space needed and that’s why it talks about the need to look for an additional 15 per cent of classroom spaces.

“So it cut off the funds it thought they needed. We doubt that financial coverage exists.

“An additional €5 billion is needed, not just one. Online teaching becomes an emergency, but no-one expresses when the emergency is declared.

“For instance, if there is one Covid case will the whole school close? Who decides the emergency? There’s a big gap and there’s no illness prevention at school.

“There are still territorial pacts and the presence of private. In the new guidelines there is ambiguity. The glass is half empty, we conquered what was given with the fight. But it’s not enough. We stay in permanent mobilisation.”

As women are disproportionately the parent whose lives have been put on hold throughout this crisis, the situation for mothers continues even as the country is in its post-lockdown phases.

Most Italian mothers cannot afford to return to work given the government childcare subsidies of €600 per month which would pay for only five days of childcare.

In a recent change to the policy, the bonus is augmented to anywhere from €1,200 to €2,000 depending on the financial situation and employment status of the parents (eg medical professionals will receive the higher amounts).

The government is also allowing this bonus to be paid to grandparents which will not surprise feminists who have long advocated for women to be compensated for their childcare efforts and that this sort of financial recognition would only come about once men (eg grandfathers) were taking part in childcare. 

Still, the government’s plan has a few positive outcomes. Half of the €1 billion is earmarked to go towards the recruitment of teachers and support staff.

Azzolina has stated that there will soon be 50,000 fixed-term teachers hired.

And more will be added who will replace the 40,000 who will retire in September.

While the situation of temporary positions will remain the same, a problem plaguing the Italian school system, the monthly salaries of teachers will grow approximately €100 more.

Italian teachers currently earn less than in most other EU nations.

I have long stated that there were always two lockdowns happening in parallel.

First there was the lockdown for people without children who had time to learn a foreign language, expand their yoga practice and fiddle with investment apps.

Then there was lockdown for those with children where mostly mothers were tasked with various jobs of nurse, cook, teacher, cleaner and administrator of the household.

We need to learn from Italy and demand that schools across Britain are opened safely in the autumn and that the rights of women and children are centred.

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