Can outdoor teaching enable Italy to safely reopen schools?

As Italy debates how to reopen schools after its strict Covid-19 lockdown, teaching outside is one of the solutions being suggested to help kids return safely to class. Jessica Phelan heard from teachers and parents already involved in outdoor education to find out what’s really involved and how it might work.

Can outdoor teaching enable Italy to safely reopen schools?
Children and parents in Rome hold a flashmob calling for schools to reopen, June 8th 2020. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In the last week of May, while most pupils in Italy were still doing classes via computer, children at two kindergartens in Piedmont were examining the magnolias and counting snails on the school lawn.

The kindergartens, Don Milani and Sant'Antonio in the town of Ivrea, are two of the only nurseries, schools or universities in Italy to have allowed kids back through the gates since March. Most still haven’t; by the time pupils return in mid-September, it will be for the first time in more than six months.

The reason they were able to invite children back is because they kept them outside, one of the strategies that’s being considered to help Italy reopen its schools while controlling the risk of another devastating coronavirus outbreak.

High school students in Rome wait to take their final exams on the school's basketball court. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Balancing the need for social distancing with the determination to return pupils to real classrooms after three months of online lessons only will mean significantly rethinking schools’ physical space.

The Ministry of Education’s scientific committee has recommended that each school should “map and reorganize its own spaces … also making use of additional spaces through collaborations with local authorities”.

The obvious place to seek extra space is outside. Moving lessons outdoors is one of the World Health Organisation’s recommended measures for reopening schools, corresponding to research that suggests the large majority of infections occur indoors.

Epidemiologists say that’s because the viral particles released from an infected person’s mouth or nose more rapidly fall to the ground or get diffused outdoors, where there are fewer surfaces to catch them and more fresh air circulating.

While heading outside doesn’t eliminate the risk of transmitting the new coronavirus, it is one of the strategies that Denmark has successfully employed since becoming the first country in Europe to reopen primary schools, nurseries and kindergartens, in mid-April.

READ ALSO: How Denmark got its children back to school so soon after lockdown

Danish teachers were encouraged to move lessons as well as breaks outdoors as much as possible, alongside extra hygiene measures and limits on physical contact. So far Denmark’s school reopening “has proven to be very safe”, epidemiologist Christian Wejse of Aarhus University told The Local six weeks in.

In Piedmont, the Italian region with the second-highest number of coronavirus cases, teachers in Ivrea tried out many of the same measures adopted in Denmark. In their trial reopening, 3-6 year olds were separated into groups of five who had their own teacher, zones and bathrooms that weren’t shared with anyone outside their “bubble”.

Hands and faces were washed at frequent intervals, while play equipment was disinfected after each use. Drop-off and pick-up times were staggered to minimise contact between families and parents weren’t allowed beyond the gates, while the day was reduced to 8am-1pm.

Above all, except for using the bathroom, the children never went inside.

A summer of experiments

Originally planned to last four days, the programme was extended for another two weeks and expanded from 20 children to 30. The municipality hailed the trial’s “excellent results” and said it had received considerable demand for the service from local families.

“The kids were overjoyed, the parents relieved that they could leave the kids with someone they knew and trusted,” says Vittoria Burton of Alce Rosso, a local cooperative already experienced in outdoor education that coordinated the project on behalf of the town council and supplied its own specially trained educators.

Thanks to a grant from a private foundation, the non-profit was also able to provide a similar outdoor programme for a further 40 children on its own grounds in the Villa Girelli, a sweeping park built for the children of workers at Olivetti’s nearby manufacturing hub. This week it started a summer camp for under-3s, “so we'll have a full summer to experiment,” Burton tells The Local.

Villa Girelli was designed as a park for workers' children within the Olivetti complex in Ivrea. Photo: bass_nroll via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But while parents may be happy for children to spend a few weeks outside in summer, they might feel differently as autumn approaches and the school year begins in earnest.

Does outdoor education have a longer-term future in Italy, which doesn’t have the tradition of forest schools that Denmark does, which spends less on education per inhabitant, and where teaching methods are notoriously slow to change?

“In this post-Covid phase we’ve had a lot of people getting in touch, to understand what kind of training you can undertake to foster outdoor education,” says Filomena Massaro, director of Italy’s National Network of Outdoor Schools, which currently counts around 40 public primary and lower secondary schools among its members.

Massaro, who is herself a head teacher at an istituto comprensivo (kindergarten to high school) in Bologna, points out that it’s not as simple as taking kids out to the school courtyard.

“Because this is what has been said, just: ‘go back to school, but do it outdoors’. But […] outdoor education means having an educational project, in which there is also a flexible approach to the way days are organized.”

That means being prepared to rethink plans if the weather changes or if children are drawn to a different activity, she explains. And more fundamentally, it involves encouraging children to learn through experience, by exploring, coming up with their own hypotheses and testing them out – a world away from the lecture-style lessons that tend to dominate Italian schools.

'Kids have trouble with freedom as well'

At Padre O. Marella primary school where Massaro’s colleague Laila Evangelisti teaches 9-10 year olds partly outdoors, her classes aren’t divided into subjects – one hour for Italian, one hour for maths, etc – but are interdisciplinary.

Studying the history of Ancient Egypt might lead to recreating early measuring devices and testing them out, leading into learning mathematical concepts like metres and centimetres. And rather than a fixed programme, Evangelisti gives her students “a series of inputs” that may or may not lead in the direction she expects.

“That’s what we understand as the real point… allowing more freedom of choice for the students, allowing them to freely explore and kind of drive their own learning. And it’s definitely difficult to do that within the constraints of the curriculum,” says Tory Dandrige, a high school biology teacher at Marymount International School in Rome, which opened its own forest school a few months before the pandemic in autumn 2019.

Most outdoor education is geared towards younger children, who have a broader curriculum and fewer exams. That doesn’t mean it can’t work for older pupils, but among secondary teachers at Marymount “because it was a little bit more difficult and they were unfamiliar with it there was some reluctance to use the space,” says Dandridge.

Teaching outdoors can be daunting at any grade, she acknowledges: for teachers, who have to keep students safe and focused in a new environment, but also for pupils, who may not be used to not being told exactly what to do.

“They really enjoy it, but kids have trouble with freedom as well, I’ve noticed. It’s letting them know that it’s ok to explore, it’s ok to have not exactly the right answer sometimes. That’s hard for them sometimes.”

'Everything will be ok': children in Italy have been away from school longer than any others in Europe. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

There are also parents to consider, who are perhaps less accustomed to risk taking than their counterparts in Denmark, where children are typically encouraged to play independently from a young age.

While Marymount carries out regular risk assessments on its forest school, “we can’t take away the risk because forest school is about risk taking too,” says Julie Finan, who is responsible for coordinating outdoor learning for the school’s youngest pupils. The school invited parents to a meeting in the proposed space to get them on board, she says, while she completed specialised training in the UK that helped prepare her to lead lessons safely.

In Bologna, Massaro says, the infant school she directs invited paediatricians to speak to parents about the benefits of outdoor learning for developing psychomotor skills. The school takes children outdoors in autumn and winter as well as in warmer months, so parents need to know what arrangements are in place for bad weather. “Families must be involved, they must feel reassured,” Massaro says.

'You can practice it in a city full of concrete'

Then there’s the question of resources: most schools in big cities, especially public ones, don’t have the spacious campus that a private school like Marymount does in Rome. In Ivrea, Alce Rosso adapted its programme to the grounds of council-owned kindergartens, but most of its activities take place in an actual Unesco World Heritage site.

Space needn’t be a barrier, says Evangelisti, who teaches at a regular Italian state school. “It's a practice of teaching in different spaces, so you don't necessarily need a park – you can practice it in a city full of concrete, as long as there is a bit of space where you can go out with the kids, as long as there is sky above your head.”

“There is not much to adapt – everything you do indoors you can also do outdoors, with some small changes at very little cost,” says Giordana Ronci, co-founder of L’Asilo Nel Bosco, an outdoor school in Ostia near Rome that relies on parents paying what they can according to their means. “The mentality is the main thing, being in nature to learn from nature, something that in our culture is not really understood.”

One resource that is essential, however, is teachers. Smaller classes are already best practice in outdoor teaching, while limiting groups is also an important precaution against Covid-19. For summer schools in Italy, which were allowed to open on June 15th, the government has mandated a minimum of one adult for every five children aged 3-5, one per seven for 6-11 year olds, and one per ten for children aged 12-17.

A makeshift forest school in France, where teachers are also experimenting in the wake of the pandemic. Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP

While teachers in Ivrea loved working with smaller groups, “obviously the cost of services is much higher and either parents or the local council or (in our case private foundations) have to foot at least part of the bill,” says Burton.

Though parents paid just €10 a day for the programme it ran on school grounds, the cost was subsidized by the local council using the money it would usually spend on its creche and after-school clubs from March to early June, which this year had to close. They also reaped the benefits of Alce Rosso’s grant funding, which had already allowed the cooperative to spend several months training its educators and conducting practice runs.

The new group limits have already meant reducing class hours at the summer school run by L’Asilo Nel Bosco, says Ronci. Hiring more educators and reducing class sizes must be a top priority if the government wants to encourage outdoor teaching, she says: “Because working with the numbers they work with now, state school teachers are heroines.”

Italy will hire some 78,000 extra teachers for the next school year, according to the Ministry of Education, which says it will give schools more than €1.6 billion to help prepare to reopen – though the funds are also supposed to cover the cost of cleaning and adapting school buildings and expanding access to digital resources.

Teachers across Italy have held protests calling on the government to make hiring a higher priority, with one union estimating that some 150,000 extra staff would be needed to enforce social distancing in the classrooms currently available.

'A more stimulating, less static way of learning'

To work at its best, shifting Italian schooling outdoors would need significant commitment from educational authorities as well a change in what teachers, parents and even children expect from lessons.

But done properly, the benefits have the potential to extend well beyond this pandemic. Teachers told The Local that they’d seen their pupils become more confident, creative, curious and better able to work in groups.

“She has no problems being in nature whatever the weather,” Elena Stignani says of her 10-year-old daughter Emma, who is in Laila Evangelisti’s class.

Children in southeast France head to lessons in the forest. Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP

Stignani knows better than most the results of outdoor education, having herself been taught by teachers who were already applying similar principles some 40 years ago.

“When children are outside in a group they are more at liberty to express themselves freely, it's less formal, emotions come out more fluidly and the exchanges that come out of that are enriching,” she says. “It’s a more stimulating, less static way of learning… And basically, if you learn to be in nature you learn to respect it. It's easier to foster conscious adults.”

Italian Education Minister Lucia Azzolina, herself a former secondary school teacher, has said that she wants the Covid-19 crisis to “become an extraordinary incentive to improve the education system and foster innovation in teaching”.

That needn’t only mean installing broadband in every classroom and buying every child a tablet; in fact, it could mean switching off the screen, stepping away from the desk, and going outside.

Megan Iacobini de Fazio contributed reporting for this story.

Confronting Coronavirus: This article is part of a new series of articles in which The Local's journalists across Europe are taking an in-depth look at the responses to different parts of the crisis in different countries; what's worked, what hasn't, and why.

This article has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

The SJN has given The Local a grant to explore how different countries are confronting the various affects of the coronavirus crisis and the successes and failures of each approach.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Nip the virus in the bud’: How Germany showed Europe the way on coronavirus testing

It’s taken other countries in Europe months to develop an adequate coronavirus testing regime needed to combat the pandemic. Rachel Stern examines how Germany managed it much sooner and how the country continues to lead the way.

'Nip the virus in the bud': How Germany showed Europe the way on coronavirus testing
A woman receives a coronavirus test in the courtyard of a doctor's practice in Berlin in April. Photo: DPA

On a sunny Friday afternoon in mid-June, Berliners enjoyed picnics in public parks, gathered at outdoor street markets and filled the outdoor terraces of restaurants.

But Hannah, a 21-year-old trainee nurse in the German capital, kicked off the weekend by starting a two-week quarantine in her flat, having just discovered she had been infected with Covid-19 after coming into contact with an acquaintance confirmed to have the disease.

“I had no symptoms, but I still tested positive,” Hannah told The Local. 

When a friend told her she was infected, Hannah quickly arranged for a test at the hospital where she works and received the results the same day.

In other countries governments have been heavily criticised for not providing rapid testing for healthcare workers or indeed the general population, even those with symptoms – a factor scientists believe exacerbated the spread of the disease.

But since the first outbreak of coronavirus Germany has made testing a priority, and now as lockdowns ease and public life reopens testing has become a crucial weapon in the fight against any resurgence of the virus.

The country’s continual effort to test its residents for the coronavirus is considered one of the key factors which has led to its low per capita case numbers and low death rate, and spared its medical system from a crippling overload experienced in other European countries.

It continues to be one of the few countries in Europe with an “open public testing” policy meaning even asymptomatic people can have access to tests. In contrast countries like France and the UK are only testing those with symptoms or those who have come into contact with anyone infected.

READ ALSO: Germany to expand coronavirus testing for people without symptoms

By mid-June it had carried out over five million tests out of its population of 83 million people, according to the Robert Koch Institute. 

As of Friday June 26th, Germany has had over 196,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, over 176,760 which are reported to have recovered, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There have also been 8,940 deaths, well below the numbers seen in France, Italy, Spain and the UK.

Testing for the novel coronavirus in a lab. Photo: DPA

Taking action from the beginning

Germany’s success with getting its testing system up and running was down to several factors.

Firstly it acted quickly when the first cluster emerged in the country back in January.

Germany’s first coronavirus case was detected on January 27th at a car parts manufacturer just outside of Munich, also marking the first incident of human to human transmission of the virus in Europe.

The case was traced back to an employee who had recently visited her parents in Shanghai and brought back the virus. 

After confirming the virus, local health officials also ordered tests for 40 people who had been in contact with the infected employees, including colleagues and family members. Importantly the company, Wabasco, paid for 139 Covid-19 tests. 

This quick-fire testing to isolate the cluster at such an early stage of the outbreak was considered crucial by experts to prevent the kind of outbreak and knock-on effects on the health service seen in other countries.

“If this cluster of infections in Bavaria hadn’t been discovered, then Germany could have had a situation like that in Italy,” Professor Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, the chair of virology at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, told The Local. 

The example set in Bavaria was copied throughout Germany as infections spread to all 16 states.

“Infections were quickly registered and their contacts quickly reached,” so that they could be tested, said Schmidt-Chanasit.

It was exactly the kind of procedure recommended by the WHO, which other European countries struggled to put in place and only began to roll out once lockdowns were eased in May and June. The test was developed domestically by coronavirus expert Dr. Christian Drosten of Berlin’s renowned Charité university clinic.

At the peak of the epidemic in Germany, the week beginning March 30th – Germany carried out 408,000 tests a week, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute.

From the beginning of the outbreak Germany has relied on “PCR tests”, which detect viral RNA even before antibodies form or symptoms – which can take up to 14 days to show – are present. 

READ ALSO: '200,000 tests a day': Germany pushes to expand coronavirus testing

Following the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, as the virus is scientifically known, in Wuhan, China in December 2019, Drosten and his team of researchers got to work. 

As soon as their Chinese colleagues made the genome sequence available, they were able to roll out the test which would not only be available for use by the end of January in Germany, but also worldwide. 

Although not everything went smoothly in the early days of the epidemic in Germany.

Initially public health insurance companies would only pay for a test if someone showed systems of the virus.

Part of the rationale was that it was in the middle of flu season and, as such, a lot of German residents exhibited typical respiratory symptoms. 

Some also reported challenges acquiring a test at the beginning. 

Ali, a 34-year-old digital marketing executive who suspected he had Covid-19, was initially refused a test in a Berlin clinic because he didn’t show enough symptoms, but was able to eventually get one after “legal pressure” from his employer.

“The costs were by no means covered by the health insurance company, so my employer paid around €270,” Ali told The Local.

Things have changed since then with the German government realising it paid in the long run to invest in testing notably by covering costs that might have dissuaded members of the public from taking a test.

A woman receives a test in the coronavirus 'hotspot' of Heinsberg. Photo: DPA

Health Minister Jens Spahn of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats said in June “It is much more expensive to test too little than to test too much.”

Spahn was speaking after the German the Health Ministry announced that the country’s public health insurance would cover the roughly €50 test for anyone who suspected they might have coronavirus, even if they didn’t show symptoms

The cost of all tests since May 15th would be covered, the ministry announced, for both the publicly and privately insured in Germany, and for any official testing centre or location.

READ ALSO: Germany plans to test everyone admitted to hospitals and nursing homes

Germany’s pharmaceutical industry played its part

Not everything came down to policy.

One of the reasons Germany was able to dramatically up its testing regime was that it could rely on its pharmaceutical industry. 

While the coronavirus plunged Germany into its worst recession since World War II, its medical diagnostics industry – the largest in Europe – boomed due to an increased demand for testing. 

A full 65 out of the 100 members of the Association of German Diagnostics Industry (VDGH) offer “corona tests and associated products”, a large number of them centering on standard PCR-Tests. Others often so-called Schnelltests (rapid tests), which give an immediate result but questions remain about their accuracy.

“The German government decided for an early, comprehensive and goal-oriented testing strategy,” said the VDGH during a presentation entitled ‘Why Germany is at the top of testing’ on June 12th

READ ALSO: Germany ramps up coronavirus testing to 500,000 a week

Following the large coronavirus outbreak in February, Philipp Freese’s first thought was how to improve testing for the coronavirus. 

His company PharmGenomics had focused on screenings for colon cancer, but it quickly shifted gears, developing an at-home PCR test (CoronaScreen) from genetic information which had already been published, and testing its 17 employees.

“It was pretty apparent that the pandemic would rapidly spread,” said Freese, whose wife comes from the district of Heinsberg, one of Germany’s original coronavirus hotspots.

“We decided that we have to help fight the pandemic and focus on this topic,” said Freese, who is raising the funds to finance the tests through a crowdfunding campaign dubbed #CrowdBeatsCorona. “We would lose our scarce time if we did not follow the trend.”

A blended approach’

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), testing is a crucial tool in stemming the spread of the coronavirus, but must be part of a comprehensive approach which also includes quarantining confirmed and suspected cases for two weeks, ensuring sufficient capacity in the health care system such as beds and ventilators, and enforcing social distancing measures. 

“Germany has been organized, they continued to test at high rates, they continued with tracking and tracing despite challenges,” a WHO spokesperson told The Local.

“They have activated the public health and social measures and implemented the comprehensive and blended approach as recommended by WHO,” the spokesperson added.

That comprehensive approach meant the battle against the epidemic wasn’t all about the testing strategy in Germany.

For a start the strict lockdown imposed across the country is credited with saving many lives and the government also moved to bolster its health system.

By mid-March, when the country counted slightly more than 11,000 confirmed cases and 27 deaths, it announced a plan to double its 25,000 hospital beds with respiratory care capacity.

They set aside enough space to not only accept severely ill patients from Germany, but also coronavirus patients from neighbouring EU countries when their own hospitals lacked capacity and supplies. 

Ana, a nurse who works in intensive care at a hospital near Cologne, told The Local that while protective medical equipment (PPE) ran low, it never ran out and Germany had far more ventilators available to the worst-off Covid-19 patients that other countries.

'Nip the virus in the bud'

Widespread testing has so far helped Germany avoid a second wave of new infections as it transitions from a strict lockdown by crucially helping to identify and isolate new clusters such as the one that emerged at a meat-packing plant in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Out of 6,140 employees tested at the plant, 1,553 are confirmed to have been infected with coronavirus. The plant was immediately closed and a new local lockdown imposed on the whole district.

Tönnies, the slaughterhouse where a corona outbreak occurred in June. Photo: DPA

Further widespread testing in the area will continue, especially in care homes. In addition, everyone in the district is allowed to voluntarily undergo testing free of charge if they want to. If the numbers “remain low”, the lockdown will be lifted.

Testing has also slowed smaller outbreaks that could have otherwise spiralled outside of control. At a residential complex in Berlin’s trendy Friedrichshain district, 44 people were confirmed to be infected with the virus on Wednesday June 24th. 

The local health department arranged for testing – even for asymptomatic residents  – after a contact person was identified.

“Among the people tested positive for Covid-19 by the health department, there are also children attending schools and day care centres…They affected facilities were informed immediately,” said the health department authorities, pointing out that immediate testing would occur at these locations.

“We want to nip the virus in the bud,” said Health Minister Spahn.

Germany now has the capacity in its labs to carry out up to one million tests a week, Susanne Glasmacher, a spokesperson for the Robert Koch Institute, told The Local. 

Of the tests which have been conducted, one percent have come back positive, “a very good result in international comparison,” said Glasmacher. 

READ ALSO: Coronavirus outbreak in Germany is 'under control' says health minister

The test capacity in Germany has progressively grown larger since the start of the outbreak. By March 9th, there were 28 laboratories in Germany processing results, with a total of 7,115 tests carried out per week. 

By June 15th, Germany counted 138 such labs, and had the capacity to carry out 166,445 tests per day, meaning capacity was nearly twice the number of actual tests being carried out.

But testing only works with tracing and Germany has 400 coronavirus call centres where operators field calls from people worried they might have contracted the virus after coming into contact with a person who tested positive. 

They not only put them in touch with medical personnel to arrange for a test themselves, but – working with 21,000 tracers throughout the country – aim to track down every person the positive person has come into contact with and alert them.

Germany is also armed with a new voluntary coronavirus warning app, which can measure whether smartphone users have come closer than about two meters to an infected person for over 15 minutes. 

They can then quickly seek out a test.

The success of testing also relies on those people who are positive going into a two-week quarantine, even if they have no symptoms. 

Quarantine rules

Germany has strict punishments for those who flout the rules.

Violation of quarantine could in extreme cases result in a maximum prison sentence of up to two years or a steep fine. The health authorities check the quarantine by calling the affected person's home to talk to the patient and check how they are doing.

But not everything is perfect with Germany’s testing strategy.

Despite all of its resources, hotlines and testing centres for the coronavirus often remain closed on weekends, or after hours. 

While large metropolitan centres are equipped with several makeshift centres and drive-in testing centres – which can accept patients after they are referred by local health authorities – more rural areas have less resources. 

Amr Aswad, a virology researcher at Berlin's Free University, told The Local that the system for testing in Germany was working “very well” but that Germany could make an even greater push to test more asymptomatic people.

“There is a case to be made for testing more asymptomatic people, particularly in situations where a large number of people are gathered, even if they are observing social distancing,” said Aswad.

“It's hard to say for sure but I think this could help stop the chain of transmission in its tracks early on.”

Testing is 'building block'

The pandemic – and concerns about it – are still far from over in Germany as the recent outbreaks detailed above show. 

As of Sunday June 21st, the so-called R-Wert or reproductive value, had shot up from 1.79 to 2.88 following the recent outbreaks.

What’s clear is that Germany, thanks to its well-established testing strategy set up right from the outset, appears well-placed to be able to prevent a second wave.

“Testing is a big building block,” said Schmidt-Chanasit. “It's very important as Germany goes from general blanket measures to specific ones. Testing plays a very important role in ensuring success.”

Schmidt-Chanasit said that such a comprehensive testing strategy of identifying contacts of an infected person – whether co-workers, schoolmates or acquaintances – is the way forward.

“As soon as a contact person arises, there must be a lot of testing,” said Schmidt-Chanasit.

“Now and in the future.”

Confronting Coronavirus: This article is part of a new series of articles in which The Local's journalists across Europe are taking an in-depth look at the responses to different parts of the crisis in different countries; what's worked, what hasn't, and why.
This article has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
The SJN has given The Local a grant to explore how different countries are confronting the various affects of the coronavirus crisis and the successes and failures of each approach.