Italy's initial virus hotspot back to school after 7 months


CODOGNO, Italy (AP) - The morning bell Monday marked the first entrance to the classroom for the children of Codogno since Feb. 21, when panicked parents were sent to pick up their children after the northern Italian town gained notoriety as the first in the West to record local transmission of the coronavirus.

While all of Italy’s 8 million school students endured Italy’s strict 2½-month lockdown, few suffered the trauma of the children of Codogno, whose days were punctuated by the sirens of passing ambulances.

“Many lost grandparents,” said Cecilia Cugini, the principal of Codogno’s nursery, elementary and middle schools.

So while the reopening of Italian schools marks an important step in a return to pre-lockdown routine, the step bears more symbolic weight in the 11 towns in Lombardy and Veneto that were the first to be sealed off as coronavirus red zones.

Codogno Mayor Francesco Passerini said the town of 17,000 has had virtually no new cases for months now, but authorities are not being complacent. He said they have spared no effort in working with school administrators to provide maximum protection to the city’s 3,500 students.

“We hope it goes well, so that all we lived can be relegated to memory,” Passerini said.

In Codogno, nursery school children must have their temperatures taken at drop-off but are not required to wear masks. In elementary school and middle school, parents are asked to monitor temperatures at home and masks are required, though they may be lowered during lessons. In schools where distance cannot be maintained, older students will have to keep masks on all day.

Schools throughout the country struggled to identify new classroom spaces, for instance in church oratory buildings, and construct outside learning spaces. In a country where years of spending cuts have left many school buildings run down, administrators have jumped at the chance to take care of long-overdue repairs, in some places delaying school openings while work is finished.

School and local officials in Codogno worked tirelessly to ensure the smoothest return possible for students.

On Monday, masked elementary students waited in spaces designated by red tape to be called to class. Two classes were shifted from the more crowded of Codogno’s two elementary schools to ensure proper distancing. “Parents were not happy but we have dedicated a shuttle bus to bring the children back and forth, to address some of the discomfort,” Cugini said.

The middle school, meanwhile, receive 230 new desks commissioned by the government. Cugini said they will replace older, oversized desks to allow students to maintain enough distance to remove masks. Art and technology classes requiring more working room will rotate through the middle school’s auditorium.

The city also repaired the middle school roof and upgraded the bathrooms as part of preparations - both projects welcome and overdue.

“It is an emblematic moment for us,” Cugini said. “It is important to create an atmosphere so the students can experience the emotions of finding themselves back in school, with classmates and teachers, without being distracted by other things.”

For Maria Cristina Baggi’s daughters, ages 4 and 10, there was no back-to-school shopping for new backpacks: the old ones were fine as they had lain unused for the four months of distance learning last winter and spring. But there was the usual sense of anticipation to be reunited with classmates, the renewal that comes with every school year - tinged now by a not-so-distant concern that the COVID-19 back-to-school project will bring an uptick in contagion even here.

While there are many rules governing classroom behavior, some uncertainty remains.

“We have doubts about how to react to a cold or a coughing attack - that is an unknown for everyone,” Baggi said.

Barry reported from Milan.