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CATANIA, Italy — On a school day at the end of May, Maria Leotta’s classroom in Sicily’s second-largest city was almost empty: Just seven of her 19 second-grade pupils showed up for their Italian lesson.
The end of term is near, but that’s not why so few children were in attendance. “It’s been like this all year, students would come intermittently,” said Leotta. “And it was even worse when classes were online … only a third of them would connect to attend my lessons.”
Even before the pandemic, Italy lagged behind many of its peers in educational rankings and suffered from one of the highest early school-leaver rates in the European Union. But the coronavirus crisis, which saw schools shuttered for large parts of the past year, has sent dropout numbers soaring, teachers say. In January, a report by Save the Children Italy found 28 percent of teenagers aged 14 to 18 said that at least one classmate had completely disappeared from online lessons.
Only a handful of European countries kept schools closed for longer than Italy did. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the government suspended in-person teaching for all ages for a period of 35 weeks; in the fall, when the second wave hit, schools welcomed pupils intermittently, with elementary schools open more often than middle and high schools.
The government argued that keeping schools closed was crucial to stemming the spread of the coronavirus, pointing to the risk of the virus circulating in closed spaces such as classrooms and public transport. Teachers and experts, however, warn that this strategy may have done irreparable damage to children’s futures — particularly in the country’s less developed southern peripheries.
The divide between Italy’s wealthier north and poorer south is reflected in the regions’ respective levels of childhood poverty. A 2018 report by Save the Children found that one in five Italian children lives 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 percent, in regions like Sicily and Calabria it is 56 and 49 percent, respectively.
Any increase in dropout rates risks entrenching these inequalities. And some experts and teachers fear that this new set of left-behind youth will make easy prey for mafia and gang recruitment.
The south was spared the worst of the pandemic, which, at its worst moments, saw military vans line up to transport coffins from northern towns. But the economic fallout cut deeper here, where poverty rates were high and infrastructure was lacking even before the pandemic.
“It simply emphasized a number of pre-existing structural problems, particularly in the education sector,” said Mila Spicola, a consultant at the Ministry for the South and education policies researcher at Italy’s department of social cohesion.
No official statistics are yet available — they will be published in January 2022 — but Spicola said that the shift to online classes left already vulnerable population groups behind, particularly in the south.
Higher dropout rates are inextricably linked with a region’s economic situation, she added: Parents losing their jobs due to the pandemic was likely a factor, with teenagers leaving school to contribute to the family income.
“The real impact can be perceived through the view from the [poorer] suburbs where many children during online schooling simply disappeared, despite remaining enrolled,” Spicola said. “Non-attendance has been creating … education gaps that will form semi-illiterate citizens destined to low-paid and black-market jobs.”
Others have warned that the disruption will stall educational progress in areas such as Sicily, where within 30 years illiteracy levels have fallen from as high as 70 percent in some areas to 18 percent today.
Leotta, for example, said that her pupils — who spent the entire second term of their first grade online — passed onto second grade but most still do not know how to read properly.
Her school is close to the San Giovanni Galermo district in Catania, an area already suffering from low school attendance and high rates of crime, leaving many local teenagers to pick up black-market jobs or drug-dealing gigs.
“The risk is that we may lose entire generations to criminal groups at such a critical moment for a post-pandemic recovery of our country, if action is not taken immediately,” said Leotta.
Of 80,000 children between the ages of 10 and 16 not going to school in Sicily, 18,000 live in Catania, according to Judge Roberto Di Bella of the Juvenile Court of Catania. He warned that institutions needed to be more alert about dropout rates ahead of 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,” said Federico Varese, a criminologist at the University of Oxford specializing in Italian organized crime. “When the state fails to protect its citizens during a crisis like that of COVID-19, the danger is that the mafia may seem like a better solution, even in the eyes of the youngest.”
Fighting education poverty
In Campania, a region that remained among the higher-risk infection areas for most of this academic year, schools closed for longer than in the rest of the country. Pupils from third to eighth grade went to school for only 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 were as high as 19 percent. With the summer holidays starting on June 9, many teachers worry that some pupils won’t return in September.
In the most difficult neighborhoods of Naples, nonprofit organizations have tried to step in. In San Giovanni a Teduccio, the association Figli in Famiglia — which works with disadvantaged families in the area — turned their headquarters into a classroom from March onward. Twenty students would come every morning to follow and get help with online classes in the association’s office.
“They received laptops and were assisted with the work of our educators. Schools would report us the names of the students who didn’t connect online, and we would reach out to 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 spring — shortly after Mario Draghi was named prime minister — the government appeared to grasp the severity of the situation and started throwing money at the problem.
In March, the government approved a €35 million plan to invest in education in the south, a sum that came on top of an €85 million fund for schools requiring equipment for distance learning as well as an €8 million budget for educational innovation in 2020.
“The south was caught unprepared by the social crisis created by the pandemic, and the school sector specifically, coming from a notorious past of budget cuts, was already crippled,” acknowledged Roberta Alaimo, a member of the Italian parliament with the anti-establishment 5Star Movement.
The Ministry of Education also recently allocated €40 million for a “summer plan” aimed at fighting educational poverty in disadvantaged areas.
“We also thought of creating initiatives to combat educational poverty specifically in southern regions through the enhancement of socio-educational services for minors, with the aim of involving up to 50,000 kids from high-risk areas,” said Barbara Floridia, undersecretary at the education ministry.
In April, the government allowed pupils of all grades to return to their classrooms for at least half of their lessons, saying that finishing the academic year in person was a priority.
But Leotta worries that the year of school closures will have lasting aftereffects. “A lot of damage has already been done, unfortunately,” she said as she wrote down the many absentees in her class register.
Both teachers and pupils have lost motivation, she added, and even the children who do show up are less engaged at school. “Online classes have also contributed to kids’ loss of interest in the learning process. I fear that many next September will just show up for mere attendance purposes to avoid social services.”