Italy's parents scramble after schools shut over virus

Rome (AFP) –


Only the footsteps of teachers and administrators echoed along the empty corridors of Rome's Julius Caesar high school on Thursday.

Closed as a coronavirus precaution along with Italy's other 58,000 nurseries, elementary schools, public and private universities, three young students sat on a low wall on a nearby side street, laughing as they tapped away at their phones.

Inside, in one of the empty auditoriums, a group of teachers and the school's principle huddled, trying to come up with an urgent long-distance learning scheme.

Classes were suspended for 8.5 million children and young people from Thursday until March 15, the first time some Italian schools have closed since World War II.

Paola Senese, the head principle, is trying to work out how to make sure everyone stays on schedule.

"We are trying to help teachers obtain information and advice," Senese told AFP after the meeting.

"We want to maintain a teaching link with the students."

Several teachers still turned up for work, not quite knowing how to respond to the government's decision on Wednesday to unveil a package of measures impacting almost every aspect of Italians' lives.

The government's other curbs on public life include a month-long ban on fan attendance at football matches and other sports events.

Italians have also been advised to end their custom of greeting each other with a peck on both cheeks -- and to stop shaking hands at business meeting and other more formal events.

To many, some of the measures seem comical, prompting plenty of social media chatter and viral spoof videos.

But the COVID-19 disease sweeping the European country of 60 million that sparked them remains no laughing matter.

- Record toll -

Italy has borne the brunt in Europe of the COVID-19 disease that has spread from China to more than 80 countries since the end last year,

Its death toll of 148 over just two weeks is the highest after China.

It has 3,858 total cases and 351 people receiving intensive care.

More worryingly for officials in Rome, the virus is only gaining strength, killing 41 people in a 24-hour span ending Thursday -- the highest single-day toll to date.

Some Italians sound like they no longer know what to think, expressing hope that the school closures and other protective public measures announced will work.

But they have their doubts.

"I've been told that these are the precautionary measures that will work to stem the epidemic's spread, said Roberta Pregolini a 43-year-old lawyer and mother of two young girls.

"Because obviously this creates problems for families where parents work," she stressed.

Pregolini said some families with working parents she knows were trying to share babysitters and take turns watching over their kids in groups.

"We try to help each other out," Pregolini said.

But Fabio Spampinato, a 12-year-old pupil, had a slightly different take on things.

"You don't have to go to school, you have more free time -- so you can study more," he added after a moment's pause, nodding for emphasis.