Italy’s school dropout problem goes from bad to worse in the event of a pandemic

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NAPLES – Francesca Nardi never liked school, nor thought she was particularly good at it, but with the help of teachers and classmates she had managed to stay until grade 11. When the pandemic struck, however, she found herself lost in online lessons, unable to understand her teacher thanks to the tablet the school had given her. She was failing, was in danger of being abandoned, and was planning to give up.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, she stopped chatting with two friends, who had previously given up near her home in plans for the eastern suburbs of Naples.

“It’s better if I just work,” said Ms. Nardi, 15. “And don’t waste another year.”

Even before the pandemic, Italy was among the the worst drop-out rates in the European Union, and the southern city of Naples was particularly troubled by high numbers. When the coronavirus hit, Italy closed its schools more than almost all other European Union member states, with particularly long shutdowns in the Naples area, pushing students to go out in even higher numbers .

Although it is too early to obtain reliable statistics, principals, advocates and social workers say they have seen a sharp increase in the number of students leaving the system. The impact on an entire generation may be one of the lasting effects of the pandemic.

Italy has closed its schools – in whole or in part – for 35 weeks in the first year of the pandemic – three times longer than France, and more than Spain or Germany.

And experts say that in doing so, the country, which has oldest population and was already lagging behind in critical educational indicators, risked leaving behind its youth, its greatest and rarest resource for a strong post-pandemic recovery.

“We are not preparing for the future,” said Chiara Saraceno, an Italian sociologist who works in the field of education.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has allowed all Italian high school students to return to school in person for at least half of their classes from Monday. Completing the school year in class, Draghi said, should be a priority.

“The whole government believes that the school is a fundamental pillar of our society,” said Italian Minister of Health Roberto Speranza. “The first place we will invest.”

But a lot of damage has already been done.

For much of the past year, the government has argued that it is necessary to keep high schools closed to prevent infection in the public transportation students use to and from class.

Elementary schools were allowed to open more often, but the country’s insistence on closures, especially middle and high schools, experts said, risked exacerbating inequalities and the country’s deep north-south divide. National and regional officials drew strong criticism, and even the then minister of education argued that schools should have opened more.

Mr Speranza admitted that schools had paid “a very high price in recent months”.

Schools in the southern city of Naples have been closed longer than the rest of the country, in part because Campania region president Vincenzo De Luca insisted they were a potential source of infection . At one point, he scoffed at the idea that children in his area were “crying to go to school.”

In Naples the drop-out rate is around 20%, double the European average, and in the outskirts of the city it is even higher. Teachers have struggled to keep students interested in the school and fear months of closed classes will shut them out for good.

As schools closed, 13-year-old Francesco Saturno spent his mornings helping in his grandfather’s fruit shop, sleeping or glued to his PlayStation. He only logged in to his online class twice.

His mother, Angela Esposito, 33, who dropped out of high school herself, feared he would drop out of school and follow in his father’s footsteps, who earns currency advice by keeping cars parked in Naples.

“I’m afraid if he doesn’t go to school he will get lost,” she said. “And getting lost in Naples is dangerous.”

In Italy it is illegal for pupils under 16 to drop out of school and the local juvenile court prosecutor, aware that social workers are overwhelmed, has asked school principals to report cases directly to him. of abandonment.

“I am really worried,” said prosecutor Maria De Luzenberger. In the past month, around a thousand cases of abandonment from Naples and the nearby town of Caserta have piled up on her desk, she said. It was more than in 2019. “I did not expect such a flood.”

Colomba Punzo, the principal of Francesco’s school, said dropouts tripled at her primary and secondary school during the school closings. She struggled to find an alternative and held in-person workshops every morning to reintegrate Francesco and other at-risk children into the system.

Ms Punzo said policymakers underestimated how closing schools in neighborhoods like Ponticelli meant cutting “the only possible lifeline” for children. “When the school is open you can grab them and bring them over, when the school is closed what do you do?”

In the Scampia district of Naples, known throughout Italy as a difficult place plagued for years by the Camorra mafia, teachers at Melissa Bassi high school had made significant progress in integrating local children into school thanks to to artistic projects, workshops and private lessons.

The school principal said half of his students stopped attending classes when they moved online. He said they gave cell phone SIM cards to those who couldn’t afford Wi-Fi and offered night classes to teens forced to work as the pandemic affected their family finances.

But the challenge was enormous. Some of the neighborhood’s more neglected housing projects lack cell phone coverage, and children are often crammed with several family members into a few rooms. Teachers hoped most students would return if and when schools reopened, but feared those falling behind might not see the point in returning.

“They are so discouraged,” said Marta Compagnone, a teacher there. “They think the bets are off.”

Hanging out with his friends on the steps of a square under the ‘Sails’, a huge triangular housing project a few blocks from high school Melissa Bassi, Giordano Francesco, 16, said he often fell asleep, s bored and frustrated with the online courses he took on his phone. He argued with the teachers because he would often log off to help his grandfather, who has Alzheimer’s disease, eat or go to the bathroom.

Her mother, who left school at age 10 and lost her job as a theater cleaner during the pandemic, asked her to finish the school year. He said he would, and then give up afterwards.

His girlfriend, Marika Iorio, 15, standing next to him, said she intended to graduate, become a psychologist and live a different life than her father, who doesn’t know or read or write. But she struggled to attend online school and also failed her classes.

“I’m afraid I won’t make it,” she said.

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