Italy’s Problem With School Dropouts Goes From Bad to Worse in Pandemic

NAPLES – Francesca Nardi never liked school or found her particularly good at it, but with the help of teachers and classmates, she had managed to stay through 11th grade. However, when the pandemic broke out, she got lost in online class and couldn’t understand her teacher on the tablet the school gave her. She failed, was likely left behind, and planned to get out.

One last Wednesday afternoon, she was talking to two friends who had already got out near their house in the projects on the eastern outskirts of Naples.

“It’s better if I just work,” said Ms. Nardi, 15 years old. “And don’t waste another year.”

Italy already had one of the worst dropout rates in the European Union before the pandemic, and the southern city of Naples was particularly hard hit. When the coronavirus hit, Italy closed its schools more than any other European Union member state, with particularly long closings in the Naples area, displacing students in even greater numbers.

While it’s too early for reliable statistics, school principals, lawyers, and social workers say the number of students dropping out of the system has risen sharply. The impact on an entire generation can be one of the long-term effects of the pandemic.

Italy closed all or part of its schools for 35 weeks during the first year of the pandemic – three times longer than France and more than Spain or Germany.

And experts say the country, which has the oldest population in Europe and has already lagged behind on critical education indicators, has taken the risk of leaving behind its youth, its greatest and rarest resource for a strong post-pandemic recovery.

“We are poorly preparing for the future,” said Chiara Saraceno, an Italian sociologist who works on education.

Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi allowed all Italian students to return to school in person for at least half of their classes from Monday. Completing the academic year in class, Draghi said, should be a priority.

“The entire government believes that schools are a fundamental backbone of our society,” said Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza. “The first place we’re going to invest.”

But a lot of damage has already been done.

For much of the past year, the government argued the need to keep high schools closed to prevent infection of the public transportation that students used to and from classes.

Elementary schools were allowed to open more often, but the country’s insistence on closings, especially middle and high schools, risked worsening inequalities and the country’s deep north-south divide, according to experts. National and regional officials were harshly criticized, and even the incumbent Education Minister argued that schools should have opened more.

Mr Speranza admitted that the schools had paid “a very high price during these months”.

Schools in the southern city of Naples are closed longer than in the rest of the country, partly because the President of the Campania Region, Vincenzo De Luca, insisted that they are a potential source of infection. He once ridiculed the idea that children in his region “cry to go to school”.

Updated

April 26, 2021, 4:58 p.m. ET

In Naples, the dropout rate is around 20 percent, twice the European average, and even higher on the outskirts. The teachers there have tried to get the students interested in the school and fear that months of closed classrooms would shut them out for good.

When schools closed, 13-year-old Francesco Saturno spent his mornings helping at his grandfather’s fruit shop, sleeping on his PlayStation or taping it together. He’s only signed up for his online class twice.

His mom, Angela Esposito, 33, who had dropped out of high school herself, feared he might drop out of school and follow in the footsteps of his dad, who gets tips for change babysitting parked cars in Naples.

“I’m afraid he’ll get lost if he doesn’t go to school,” she said. “And getting lost in Naples is dangerous.”

In Italy, it is illegal for students under 16 to leave school and the local Minors Court prosecutor, aware that social workers are overcrowded, asked school principals to report early school leavers directly to them.

“I’m really worried,” said public prosecutor Maria De Luzenberger. Over the past month, about a thousand cases from Naples and the nearby town of Caserta have accumulated on her desk, she said. That was more than in all of 2019. “I did not expect such a flood.”

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Colomba Punzo, the principal of Francesco’s school, said early school leavers tripled during school closings in her elementary and middle schools. She looked for an alternative and organized face-to-face workshops every morning to get Francesco and other children at risk back into the system.

Ms. Punzo said policymakers underestimated how closing schools in neighborhoods like Ponticelli meant cutting down “the only possible lifeline” for children. “When the school is open, you can grab them and have them come. When the school is closed, what do you do?”

In the Scampia district of Naples, known throughout Italy as a place plagued by the Camorra Mafia for years, teachers at Melissa Bassi High School had made significant progress in educating local children through art projects, workshops and personal tutoring.

The school principal said half of the students stopped following the class when they went online. He said they gave cell phone SIM cards to those who couldn’t afford WiFi and offered teenagers evening hours who were forced to work when the pandemic hit their families’ finances.

But the challenge was enormous. Some of the most neglected housing projects in the neighborhood lack cellular coverage, and children are often crammed into a few rooms with multiple family members. Teachers hoped that when schools reopened that most students would return, but they feared that those who fell behind would not see the point in returning.

“You are so discouraged,” said Marta Compagnone, a teacher there. “They think the bets are up.”

Giordano Francesco, 16, who was hanging out with friends on the steps of a square under the “sails,” a huge triangular housing project a few blocks from Melissa Bassi High School, said he often fell asleep, bored and frustrated by them Online courses he followed on his phone. He got into an argument with teachers because he often checked out to help his grandfather with Alzheimer’s disease, eat or go to the bathroom.

His mother, who left school at 10 and lost her job as a theater cleaner during the pandemic, asked him to end the school year. He said he would do it and then get out.

His girlfriend Marika Iorio (15), who was standing next to him, said she wanted to graduate, become a psychologist and lead a different life than her father, who can neither read nor write. But she struggled to follow the school online and also failed in class.

“I’m afraid I might not be able to do it,” she said.