As the number of COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Italy, the country remains on lockdown. This is the struggle of being a parent in Italy during such an unimaginable time.
People wear face protective masks in the Altar of the fatherland (Altare della Patria) on March 5, 2020 in Rome, Italy. Today family Minister Elena Bonetti said that the government is studying ways to help families after it decided to close Italy's schools and universities until the middle of March because of the coronavirus emergency (Covid-19).
People wear face protective masks in the Altar of the fatherland (Altare della Patria) on March 5, 2020 in Rome, Italy. Today family Minister Elena Bonetti said that the government is studying ways to help families after it decided to close Italy's schools and universities until the middle of March because of the coronavirus emergency (Covid-19).
| Credit: Stefano Montesi - Corbis/Getty Images

Here I am with my kids, 8 and 12, living in what feels almost like a ghost town as we are told to stay indoors due to the coronavirus. All of Italy—more than 60 million people—have been placed under lockdown to stop the spread.

In our region of Italy, Friuli Venezia Giulia (on the border of the Veneto region), there have been 126 cases of the virus among its about one million inhabitants. More than 2,000 swabs have been administered in our region to people who call a dedicated toll-free number to report their symptoms.

Thankfully I don't know anyone personally who has been tested for or contracted the coronavirus. But what I do know is for parents in Italy, the recent developments in the coronavirus outbreak can only be described as overwhelming. Anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration abound, as the latest figures show that Italy has more than 15,000 cases and more than 1,000 people have died (the most deaths outside of China, where the virus began). And life on “lockdown” is far from easy.

Life for Parents

When first reports of the coronavirus started to circulate at the end of January, social media proliferated with memes that joked about this being a grossly over-reported and overestimated media frenzy. The danger was minimized, comparing the relatively few instances of COVID-19 with the numbers of yearly influenza (more than 6 million cases of flu were reported in Italy between 2019 and early 2020, and it's fatal for about 8,000 Italians each year). Many people underestimated the trajectory that this international coronavirus outbreak would take; few imagined it would become a real threat and reach the scale of a pandemic, as the World Health Organization has officially called it.

Now the only movement in some villages is the civil protection agency emergency vehicles driving around reminding people over the loudspeaker to stay home unless strictly necessary (which does feel somewhat apocalyptic). Anyone who leaves their village must show a self-certification document with a valid reason for traveling: going to work, going to pick up essential goods, making deliveries. One desperate parent was stopped by police and fined in the nearby province of Pordenone for traveling between restricted areas to buy a game console. (I'm presuming he also has some kids at home suffering from cabin fever.)

The center of Udine during the coronavirus outbreak.
The center of Udine is empty during the coronavirus outbreak.
| Credit: Courtesy of Rachel Hay

Until yesterday, shops and bars were open with restricted hours, and all local businesses had to display signs reminding people to enter a few at a time and to avoid close contact: "Please keep a distance of at least 1 meter" and "Please do not lean on the counter." The local police were stopping people on the street to ask for documentation proving they are residents of the area.

Supermarkets are still open and recorded messages on the loudspeakers remind customers to use hand gel at the entrance and to keep their distance. Transport of goods is not restricted, so the supermarkets are being restocked, albeit not frequently enough for the products which are being stockpiled (aside from pasta and coffee, I should add eggs, fresh vegetables, and canned tomatoes). No one is fighting over toilet paper, but I did see two people (in masks) negotiating over the last multipack of dog food. Pharmacies, tobacconists (these also provide essential services like phone top-ups, bill paying, and issuing vouchers in Italy), and post offices also remain open.

Life for Kids

Thanks to all of these measures, our children should not become "super-spreaders," but they are still being affected.

As the media first focused on news from China, my youngest son had questions that were difficult to answer, many of them fueled by fake news stories circulating on social media and making their way into school playgrounds. "Why do Chinese people eat bats?" "My classmate is Chinese—shouldn't he be staying at home?" "Is Grandma going to die?"

When my son confessed that he was losing sleep over it, I shared a video with him via the educational technology company Edmodo that a colleague recommended. It was a cartoon that explained what the virus is and what we can do to protect ourselves. In the case of my older son, the bad taste jokes started to arrive via chat groups and my approach with him was less delicate. "It's no laughing matter," I scolded. "We are lucky not to be involved, but spare a thought for the people in China who have been stuck in their homes for weeks."

And now here we are facing a similar reality.

The initial school closures were for two days after the traditional carnival festivities, and many were convinced that the children would be back in class in no time. For those lucky families who have grandparents or other caregivers on hand, children simply enjoyed a few extra days of family meals and outdoor play as their parents' working life continued as normal.

The Udine International School in Udine, Italy remains closed.
The Udine International School in Udine, Italy remains closed.
| Credit: Courtesy of Rachel Hay

When it was announced on February 24 that the number of infections had spiked in just a few days, we were told schools would be closed in our region for at least another week. Museums and visitor centers were also shut down around the same time. Exhibitions, school trips, and sporting events have all been canceled since.

Coming Together as a Community

Parents vent their anxiety and frustration on the ubiquitous WhatsApp groups, fueling each other's negative emotions and increasing the feeling of being out of control. In the early stages of the outbreak, as the updates from the government were few and far between (and sometimes contradictory), phones buzzed continually with conflicting "announcements" of schools being closed for two more days, for two more weeks, lessons being recuperated during the summer. The uncertainty was very unnerving.

Waiting for information about how to proceed puts a strain on families who need to make child care arrangements. Traditional news channels always appear to be the last to know here.

Until at least April 3 even more stringent measures have been put in place to contain the virus: Again, we are now in lockdown. Celebrities, politicians, and journalists are to use the hashtag #IoRestoaCasa, or "I'm staying home," to encourage people to forgo their normal daily activities for the common good.

A store sign in Udine reads "Closed due to coronavirus provisions."
A store sign in Udine reads "Closed due to coronavirus provisions."
| Credit: Courtesy of Rachel Hay

Slowly parents have begun to come to terms with the fact that they are responsible for their child's home learning for an indeterminate time period. Recent events have obliged teachers to get on board, and school administrators to provide resources and training. This may be one of the few lasting positive effects that this event will have on the Italian education system. But in the short term, parents are finding it very time-consuming to help their children navigate the various platforms that allow them to keep in touch with teachers and submit work.

Italy has benefited greatly from European Union's investment in educational technology, but it's still somewhat behind in enabling staff and students to access these resources—demonstrated by the fully equipped computer labs and iPad trolleys in many schools which lie untouched as teachers cling to traditional methods. E-books and online resources are offered, but in their accessibility and quality, they lag far behind their English-language counterparts.

Despite the gargantuan effort by teachers—with daily video messages, Google Meets, and the range of resources available—the respect, discipline, and routine that school provides a child are very difficult to recreate at home from one day to the next.

Fortunately for my family, my eldest son attends the private school where I work, Udine International School, and digital learning has been the norm for a number of years. In middle school, Google Classroom was already in place for many subjects, and most of our students already bring their tablets or laptops to school. They are used to receiving and submitting assignments online, so the transition is not quite as dramatic as it may be for students in other institutions. But being locked indoors isn't easy regardless of what school children attend.

The author's son doing schoolwork at home.
The author's son doing schoolwork at home.
| Credit: Courtesy of Rachel Hay

Last week, this difficulty was compounded by the bright sunshine and green spaces, and I have to admit the temptation to get my work done was just too great, so I sent the boys out to play every afternoon. As of yesterday, new restrictions mean that they may no longer gather with other children, and this has already had a negative effect on their motivation. Now they are not just missing their school friends, they can't even meet up with the ones down the street.

Their friends are constantly sending messages to arrange meetups on games consoles. Downtime—undoubtedly essential to aid concentration—is almost always followed by pleas for "five, 10, 20 more minutes," or a point-blank refusal to get back to the books (or virtual classroom). Meanwhile, my laptop whirs in the corner as a gentle reminder that I should also be working from home. Oh, and not to mention my kids reminding me that home lunch service should start.

Looking into the Future

Sadly some ingrained social norms are proving hard to abandon. Despite the clear signs and red tape delineating the "safe waiting area," people still stand very close to one another when accessing the public services that are still open.

Not all clerks feel like they can put themselves in the awkward predicament of having to remind adults to keep their distance or cough into their elbow, so they just seethe quietly and hope for the best (or as I witnessed the other day in the post office, calmly roll down the shutters).

Perhaps even more worryingly, last week I took my son to the pediatrician for a regular check-up. The doctor himself had a bit of a cough, and the fifth time he sputtered into his bare hand and continued to examine my son, I could feel my anxiety level on the rise again.

One can only hope that all of the government's messages about the four ways to contain the virus also reaches adults:

  • Wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face
  • Keep at least a 1-meter distance (about 3.3 feet) from all other people
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue
  • Stay at home. Period.

Encouraging news from China that the number of new cases is slowing down is being shared by the Italian government to encourage people to hang in there, look after each other, make sacrifices, change habits. Reassurances that if we citizens do our bit to protect each other's health, the government will focus on safeguarding the economy. Mortgage payments have been put on hold and $28 billion has been pledged to ensure that the coronavirus disruption does not cause job losses.

I'm hoping this lockdown in Italy really will help curb the spread of this coronavirus and soon our lives will go back to normal.