Italy Is Reopening but Its Schools Aren’t. What’s a Parent to Do?
Italy Is Reopening but Its Schools Aren’t. What’s a Parent to Do?
Like many working parents, Ms. Monti faced a dilemma: how to ease back into her professional life when her three young children still can’t go to school.
Italy, once the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, became the first European country to impose national lockdown restrictions on March 10. On Monday, it lifted some of those restrictions, and around four million Italians returned to work, with more to follow. But schools, nurseries, day cares and summer camps have remained closed.
Families say the government hasn’t done enough to take into account the unique challenges faced by working parents in the pandemic. And that the measures that have been introduced fall short.
Many parents — and especially mothers — fear they will be forced to choose between their jobs and their family as the country slowly crawls back to life, and have called on the government to step in and act.
Women in Italy say they feel particularly stretched. Across the European Union, the women’s employment average is 67 percent, compared with 54 percent in Italy. And one study on gender inequality in the country showed that women already shoulder a disproportionate amount of child care duties.
Ms. Monti has three children — 12, 10 and 3 — and works as a textile designer for a home décor company not far from Milan. “I was happy to be back at work, but I am not coming with the same spirit you have when your kids are in school and day care,” she said.
With her husband going back to to work as well, Ms. Monti said she “parked” her two youngest children with her mother, even though older people are at a higher risk of developing serious complications from coronavirus infections. Her oldest son remained home alone. Not great choices, she admitted, but her options were limited.
The Italian government has issued several measures to assist families juggling work and increased parental responsibilities during the epidemic, including an additional 15 days of annual parental leave and a one-time voucher for 600 euros, about $648, to go toward babysitting.
Last week, the government announced it was evaluating a plan to reopen nurseries and day cares by the summer. Schools, however, are only expected to reopen in September.
Families are not feeling reassured.
“It’s a drama, a problem in the problem,” said Diana Palomba, the president of the Italian branch of the women’s organization Feminin Pluriel, a lawyer and a mother of three who lives in Florence.
Italy already lags behind the rest of Europe in terms of women’s employment, Ms. Palomba noted. The current situation “left many Italian women exposed,” and at risk of “going back to the Middle Ages, or the 1950s,” she said.
During the lockdown, Ms. Palomba found herself home schooling her elementary-school aged child, for whom distance learning was a challenge. That, and the demands of a 2-year-old toddler, made it difficult for her to work from home. “My clients pay for my time,” she said.
“It’s not right for the government to dump everything on the shoulders of the family. It’s basically free work,” she said. “It’s unacceptable.”
An article published last month on Lavoce.info, an Italian website, showed that 72 percent of those expected to return to work on Monday would be men, as restrictions on construction sites and factories, where jobs are traditionally held by men, were among the first to be lifted.
The situation, the authors wrote, would “end up increasing the workload of women” at home, where they are already responsible for much of the child care.
And many women are speaking out.
With the #primalascuola (“school first”) committee, Cristina Tagliabue has been lobbying the government to reopen schools safely or find a better solution for parents going back to work.
Ms. Tagliabue also helped launched a social media campaign called #Noncisiamo, or “we are not here,” a reference to the fact that families with children aren’t fully being taken into consideration as restrictions are lifted.
Despite the proliferation of task forces, committees and commissions to help the government make decisions in response to the pandemic, she said, the results “have been really poor” for families.
The country’s minister for equal opportunities and the family, Elena Bonetti, agrees. “It’s true that the measures are not enough,” she said in an interview. “I told the government forcefully that we needed long term strategies.”
Ms. Bonetti said she had outlined a plan to extend parental leave, renew the babysitter voucher and provide a monthly child benefit check to families through the end of the year, but her demands fell on deaf ears.
“Right now, Italian families are living in a situation of great uncertainty,” Ms. Bonetti said. Families needed to feel supported not only during the lockdown, but after, she added.
Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe. If those numbers were to decrease even further as a consequence of growing uncertainty among potential parents, it “would be a disaster,” Ms. Bonetti said.
Diana de Marchi, a municipal councilor for the Democratic Party in Milan, said it was telling — and shameful — that so few women had been included in the various committees advising the government during the crisis. The exclusion, Ms. De Marchi said, reflected a deeply rooted cultural bias that ignored family needs, like solutions to child care.
Men “don’t think that the female point of view and experience is necessary,” Ms. de Marchi said.
On Monday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he would ask that more women be included on the committees.
Government officials in Milan are urging companies to allow people to continue working from home until more solutions are available to families, Ms. de Marchi said. But working from home has its own challenges.
“You begin to work and your kids want breakfast, and then it’s a continual, ‘Mom, where’s this, where’s that.’ It’s been rather difficult,” said Alessandra Spada, a single parent of two in Cagliari, Sardinia, who returned to work on Monday, leaving her children — 14 and 11 — home alone.
Making the situation even harder, the Italian networks that normally support families — like church, after-school programs and sports centers — have also shut down.
“A family like mine doesn’t know what to do,” said Gigi De Palo, a father of five children and the president of the Forum of Family Associations, an organization that promotes family issues.
While businesses and even self-employed people have been given financial assistance, like state-backed bank loans and suspended tax payments, families have been mostly excluded from those government benefits, Mr. De Palo said.
“During Covid, the family is helping the state save money” by taking over responsibilities like education without getting anything in return, he said.
“The real problem is that the government’s proposals aren’t based in reality,” Mr. De Palo added. “They were conceived in government offices, not after listening to families.”
Mr. De Palo’s organization organized a flash mob on Sunday, when Italian families took to their balconies at 6 p.m. to applaud each other in the absence of recognition and support from the government.
“I get the feeling that they take for granted that the family will hold up, that families will be able to make it,” he said.
But many won’t, he warned.
“People are getting poorer,” he said. “People are getting fed up.”