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CATANIA, Italy – On a school day at the end of May, Maria Leotta’s class in Sicily’s second-largest city was nearly empty: only seven of her 19 second-graders showed up for their Italian lesson.
The end of the term is approaching, but that is not why so few children were present. “It’s been like this all year, the students came in intermittently,” Leotta said. “And it was even worse when the classes were online… only a third of them were logging in to attend my classes.”
Even before the pandemic, Italy lagged behind many of its peers in educative rankings and suffered one of the highest dropout rates in the European Union. But the coronavirus crisis, which has seen schools closed for much of the last year, has skyrocketed the number of dropouts, teachers say. In January, a report by Save the Children Italy, 28% of adolescents aged 14-18 said at least one classmate had completely disappeared from online classes.
Only a handful of European countries have kept schools closed longer than Italy. When the pandemic struck in March 2020, the government suspended in-person education for all ages for a period of 35 weeks; in the fall, when the second wave hit, schools catered for students intermittently, with elementary schools open more often than middle and high schools.
The government has argued that closing schools is crucial in stemming the spread of the coronavirus, highlighting the risk of the virus circulating in closed spaces such as classrooms and public transport. Teachers and experts warn, however, that this strategy could have caused irreparable damage to children’s futures, especially in the country’s least developed countries. southern outskirts.
The divide between the richer north of Italy and the poorer south is reflected in the regions’ respective levels of child poverty. A 2018 report by Save the Children found that one in five Italian children live in relative poverty. But while in northern regions such as Emilia Romagna and Friuli Venezia Giulia the number of children at risk of poverty and social exclusion is closer to 13%, in regions like Sicily and Calabria, it is respectively 56 and 49%.
Any increase in dropout rates risks entrenching these inequalities. And some experts and teachers fear that this new group of young people left behind will become easy prey for recruiting mafia and gangs.
The south has been spared the worst of the pandemic, which in its worst times has seen military vans lining up to haul coffins from northern towns. But the economic fallout was deeper here, where poverty rates were high and infrastructure was lacking even before the pandemic.
“It simply highlighted a number of pre-existing structural problems, notably in the education sector,” said Mila Spicola, consultant at the Ministry of the South and researcher in educational policies at the Italian department of social cohesion.
No official statistics are yet available – they will be released in January 2022 – but Spicola said the switch to online courses was leaving behind already vulnerable population groups, especially in the south.
Higher dropout rates are inextricably linked to the economic situation of a region, she added: Parents who lose their jobs due to the pandemic were likely a factor, with adolescents dropping out of school to contribute family income.
“The real impact can be seen through the view from the [poorer] suburbs where many children during online schooling simply disappeared, although they remained enrolled, ”said Spicola. “Absenteeism has created… education gaps that will train semi-illiterate citizens destined for low-paying jobs and the black market. ”
Others have warned that the disruption will slow educational progress in areas such as Sicily, where in 30 years illiteracy levels have fallen from 70 percent in some areas to 18 percent today.
Leotta, for example, said her students – who spent the entire second term of their first year online – moved on to second year but most still can’t read properly.
His school is close to the San Giovanni Galermo neighborhood in Catania, an area already suffering from low school attendance and high crime rates, leaving many local teens to look for black market jobs or drug trafficking concerts. .
“The risk is that we lose entire generations to criminal groups at such a critical time for our country’s post-pandemic recovery, if action is not taken immediately,” Leotta said.
Out of 80,000 children aged 10 to 16 out of school in Sicily, 18,000 live in Catania, according to judge Roberto Di Bella of the Catania juvenile court. He warned that institutions should be more attentive to dropout rates before the new academic year, as criminal groups would target them as new recruits.
“The risk is very real. It is a real danger, which should not be underestimated ”, declared Federico Varese, criminologist at the University of Oxford specializing in Italian organized crime. “When the state does not protect its citizens during a crisis like COVID-19, the danger is that the mafia may appear to be a better solution, even in the eyes of the youngest.”
Fight against school poverty
In Campania, an area that has remained among high-risk infection zones for most of this school year, schools have closed longer than in the rest of the country. Pupils in grades three to eight were only educated for 42 days between September 2020 and March 2021.
Before the pandemic, a 2019 study by Openpolis found that in the regional capital Naples, dropout rates reached 19%. With the summer vacation starting on June 9, many teachers fear that some students will not come back in September.
In the most difficult neighborhoods of Naples, non-profit organizations have tried to intervene. In San Giovanni a Teduccio, the Figli in Famiglia association – which works with disadvantaged families in the region – transformed its headquarters into a classroom from March. About twenty students came every morning to follow and get help for the online courses in the association’s office.
“They received laptops and were helped in the work of our educators. Schools would let us know the names of students who were not going online, and we would contact their families to support them, ”said Carmela Manco, president and founder of the association.
But projects like Manco’s cannot work on a large scale. In the spring – shortly after Mario Draghi was appointed prime minister – the government seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation and began to channel money into the problem.
In March, the government approved a € 35 million plan to invest in education in the south, an amount that adds to a € 85 million fund for schools in need of teaching equipment. distance as well as a budget of 8 million euros for educational innovation in the 2020s.
“The south was caught off guard by the social crisis created by the pandemic, and the school sector in particular, resulting from a notorious past of budget cuts, was already paralyzed”, admitted Roberta Alaimo, member of the Italian parliament with the ‘opposition. 5 star movement.
The Ministry of Education also recently allocated 40 million euros for a “summer plan” aimed at combating educational poverty in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
“We have also thought of creating initiatives to fight against educational poverty specifically in the southern regions through the strengthening of socio-educational services for minors, with the objective of involving up to 50,000 children in the risk, ”said Barbara Floridia, Under-Secretary for Education. ministry.
In April, the government allowed students in all grades to return to their classes for at least half of their classes, saying completing the school year in person was a priority.
But Leotta fears that the year the schools were closed will have lasting consequences. “Unfortunately, a lot of damage has already been done,” she said, noting the many absentees in her class register.
Teachers and students have lost motivation, she added, and even children who show up are less engaged in school. “Online courses have also contributed to children’s loss of interest in the learning process. I fear that many next September will show up only for attendance purposes to avoid social services. “