Students in Rome stage sit-in to demand schools be re-opened

ROME (Reuters) - Dozens of students staged a sit-in protest outside their school in central Rome on Monday, urging the government to re-open the education sector across the country after most of its 20 regions extended closures to contain rising COVID-19 infections.

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Italian schools reopened in mid-September after a six-month stop - the longest in Europe - but face-to-face lessons in high schools across the country were gradually suspended again a month later due to a new surge in cases.

“School is crucial. We are asking for a safe return to face-to-face activities,” student Emanuele Santori said during a demonstration in Rome outside his Cavour school under the shadow of the Colosseum.

Fellow pupil Ilaria Rinattieri added: “It is true we are young, but it is also true we will be the next electoral voters, workers and the citizens of tomorrow.”

Last week the government said high schools could restart at 50% capacity as of Jan. 11 but only 4 regions have re-opened. Most regional heads said it was too early and ordered that the return to classes be postponed by several weeks.

Italy’s powerful regional heads can overturn the central government’s orders on certain issues, including education.

“I have done everything I could do, the schools are ready to start but the regions have the ability to reopen them or not,” Education Minister Lucia Azzolina told state broadcaster RAI. “Distance learning is not working any more.”

Italy, the first Western country to be hit by COVID-19, has reported over 78,700 coronavirus-related fatalities since discovering the pandemic in February, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the sixth-highest in the world.

After the Christmas holidays, Italy returned to a three-tier system which allows for different measures to be applied to different regions according to infection levels.

“Linking schools reopening to the zones system or to the whim of regional governors makes every decision unstable,” parents committee ‘A Scuola!’ (To School!) wrote in a letter to newspaper Corriere della Sera. “As parents, teachers and citizens, we are tired.”

Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Mike Collett-White