Can outdoor teaching enable Italy to safely reopen schools?

As Italy debates how to reopen schools after its strict Covid-19 lockdown, teaching outside is one of the solutions being suggested to help kids return safely to class. Jessica Phelan heard from teachers and parents already involved in outdoor education to find out what’s really involved and how it might work.

In the last week of May, while most pupils in Italy were still doing classes via computer, children at two kindergartens in Piedmont were examining the magnolias and counting snails on the school lawn.

The kindergartens, Don Milani and Sant'Antonio in the town of Ivrea, are two of the only nurseries, schools or universities in Italy to have allowed kids back through the gates since March. Most still haven’t; by the time pupils return in mid-September, it will be for the first time in more than six months.

The reason they were able to invite children back is because they kept them outside, one of the strategies that’s being considered to help Italy reopen its schools while controlling the risk of another devastating coronavirus outbreak.

 High school students in Rome wait to take their final exams on the school's basketball court. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Balancing the need for social distancing with the determination to return pupils to real classrooms after three months of online lessons only will mean significantly rethinking schools’ physical space.

The Ministry of Education’s scientific committee has recommended that each school should “map and reorganize its own spaces … also making use of additional spaces through collaborations with local authorities”.

The obvious place to seek extra space is outside. Moving lessons outdoors is one of the World Health Organisation’s recommended measures for reopening schools, corresponding to research that suggests the large majority of infections occur indoors.

Epidemiologists say that’s because the viral particles released from an infected person’s mouth or nose more rapidly fall to the ground or get diffused outdoors, where there are fewer surfaces to catch them and more fresh air circulating.

While heading outside doesn’t eliminate the risk of transmitting the new coronavirus, it is one of the strategies that Denmark has successfully employed since becoming the first country in Europe to reopen primary schools, nurseries and kindergartens, in mid-April.

READ ALSO: How Denmark got its children back to school so soon after lockdown

Danish teachers were encouraged to move lessons as well as breaks outdoors as much as possible, alongside extra hygiene measures and limits on physical contact. So far Denmark’s school reopening “has proven to be very safe”, epidemiologist Christian Wejse of Aarhus University told The Local six weeks in.

In Piedmont, the Italian region with the second-highest number of coronavirus cases, teachers in Ivrea tried out many of the same measures adopted in Denmark. In their trial reopening, 3-6 year olds were separated into groups of five who had their own teacher, zones and bathrooms that weren’t shared with anyone outside their “bubble”.

Hands and faces were washed at frequent intervals, while play equipment was disinfected after each use. Drop-off and pick-up times were staggered to minimise contact between families and parents weren’t allowed beyond the gates, while the day was reduced to 8am-1pm.

Above all, except for using the bathroom, the children never went inside.

 A summer of experiments

Originally planned to last four days, the programme was extended for another two weeks and expanded from 20 children to 30. The municipality hailed the trial’s “excellent results” and said it had received considerable demand for the service from local families.

“The kids were overjoyed, the parents relieved that they could leave the kids with someone they knew and trusted,” says Vittoria Burton of Alce Rosso, a local cooperative already experienced in outdoor education that coordinated the project on behalf of the town council and supplied its own specially trained educators.

Thanks to a grant from a private foundation, the non-profit was also able to provide a similar outdoor programme for a further 40 children on its own grounds in the Villa Girelli, a sweeping park built for the children of workers at Olivetti’s nearby manufacturing hub. This week it started a summer camp for under-3s, “so we'll have a full summer to experiment,” Burton tells The Local.
 
 Villa Girelli was designed as a park for workers' children within the Olivetti complex in Ivrea. Photo: bass_nroll via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But while parents may be happy for children to spend a few weeks outside in summer, they might feel differently as autumn approaches and the school year begins in earnest.

Does outdoor education have a longer-term future in Italy, which doesn’t have the tradition of forest schools that Denmark does, which spends less on education per inhabitant, and where teaching methods are notoriously slow to change?

“In this post-Covid phase we’ve had a lot of people getting in touch, to understand what kind of training you can undertake to foster outdoor education,” says Filomena Massaro, director of Italy’s National Network of Outdoor Schools, which currently counts around 40 public primary and lower secondary schools among its members.

Massaro, who is herself a head teacher at an istituto comprensivo (kindergarten to high school) in Bologna, points out that it’s not as simple as taking kids out to the school courtyard.

  
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Can outdoor teaching enable Italy to safely reopen schools? Can outdoor teaching enable Italy to safely reopen schools? Reviewed by PostDiscus on July 17, 2020 Rating: 5

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