I Parented Through the COVID-19 Lockdown in Italy

At the start of the pandemic, Italy went on lockdown in an attempt to manage COVID-19 cases. The struggle of being a parent during that time was unimaginable.

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). . Photo: Stefano Montesi - Corbis/Getty Images

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

At the time, there had been 126 cases of COVID-19 among the approximately 1 million inhabitants in Friuli Venezia Giulia, our region of Italy. More than 2,000 swabs had been administered in our region to people who called a dedicated toll-free number to report their symptoms.

For parents in Italy, these early developments in the coronavirus outbreak could only be described as overwhelming. Anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration abounded, and life on "lockdown" was far from easy.

Life for Parents

When first reports of the coronavirus started to circulate at the end of January 2020, social media proliferated with memes that joked about this being a grossly over-reported and overestimated media frenzy. The danger was minimized. The relatively few instances of COVID-19 at the time were being compared 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, which the World Health Organization (WHO) officially labeled it by March 2020.

By that time, the only movement in some villages was the civil protection agency emergency vehicles driving around reminding people over the loudspeaker to stay home unless strictly necessary, which felt somewhat apocalyptic. Anyone who left their village had to 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 had 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. Courtesy of Rachel Hay

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 were open but recorded messages on the loudspeakers reminded customers to use the hand sanitizing gel at the entrance and to keep their distance. Transport of goods was not restricted, so the supermarkets were being restocked, albeit not frequently enough for the products that were being stockpiled (aside from pasta and coffee, I should add eggs, fresh vegetables, and canned tomatoes to that list).

No one was 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 remained open.

Life for Kids

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 coronavirus 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."

Just weeks later, we were 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 had grandparents or other caregivers on hand, children simply enjoyed a few extra days of family meals and outdoor play as their parents' working lives continued as normal.

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

When it was announced on February 24, 2020 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. The closing of exhibitions, school trips, and sporting events followed.

Coming Together as a Community

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.

Parents vented their anxiety and frustration on the ubiquitous WhatsApp groups, fueling each other's negative emotions and increasing the feeling of being out of control.

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

Celebrities, politicians, and journalists began using 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.". Courtesy of Rachel Hay

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

Italy benefited greatly from the European Union's investment in educational technology, but the rollout fell short when it came to enabling staff and students to access those new resources, a delay that was demonstrated by the fully equipped computer labs and iPad trolleys in many schools that sat untouched as teachers clung to traditional methods. E-books and online resources were offered, but in their accessibility and quality, they lagged 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 were very difficult to recreate at home from one day to the next.

Fortunately for my family, my eldest son was attending the private school where I worked, Udine International School, and digital learning had already 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 brought their tablets or laptops to school. They were used to receiving and submitting assignments online, so the transition was not quite as dramatic as it may have been for students in other institutions. But being locked indoors wasn't easy regardless.

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

At one point, these difficulties were compounded by the bright sunshine and green spaces, and the temptation to get my work done was just too great, so I sent the boys out to play every afternoon that week. But then, a new set of restrictions meant that my boys could no longer gather with other children, and the change had an almost immediate negative effect on their motivation. They were not just missing their school friends, they couldn't even meet up with the ones down the street.

Their friends constantly sent messages to arrange meetups on game consoles. Downtime—undoubtedly essential to aid concentration—was 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 whirred 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.

So what kept us going during this impossible, unpredictable time? The answer is hope. It was the fierce hope that the lockdown and all that came with it would help curb the spread of the coronavirus and that our lives would eventually get back to normal.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles