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  4. How a Virus Interrupted the Daily Routine at a Day and Boarding School

From Thursday morning until the last boarding student moved out on Saturday afternoon, the only sounds were the hurried goodbyes of boarders called out to friends and teachers and the scraping of tiny plastic wheels across tile floors. One week later, the only voices echoing through the school cortile were those of teachers and administrators as they debated the merits of conducting online lessons via Zoom compared to Skype or Google Hangout and reviewed ideas for newly designed syllabi centered around live and recorded lessons, screencasts, and an array of online assignments and self-graded quizzes.

At first, the Italian Ministry of Education announced that schools and universities would be closing, beginning March 5th, until March 16th. Less than two days after the initial school closure announcement, St. Stephen’s teachers began teaching remotely. Several days later, the Italian government announced nation-wide school closures through April 3rd.

The closing of school wasn’t entirely unexpected. Life in Italy had been becoming stranger and more uncertain for weeks. At the end of February, as coronavirus cases began to rapidly multiply outside of China and as Italy emerged as Europe’s worst-hit country, school field trips both within and outside of Italy were banned and some cultural sites such as the catacombs began closing (Reuters 2020). The ban on school trips hit the St. Stephen’s community particularly hard as it went into effect at 6 am on Sunday, February 23rd, a day when half of the school’s spring trips were scheduled to depart. In the end, seven school trips successfully departed before the ban was announced and seven trips were canceled. When the school trips that had successfully departed returned to Rome, every student and teacher had to walk through body temperature scanners on their way to passport control at Fiumicino Airport. This was the first sign that life in Rome was changing. Over the course of the following two weeks, the masks and gloves donned by the Fiumicino airport employees would multiply in the streets of Rome until almost every passerby and many motorists and drivers could be seen wearing a mask and, in some cases, both a white mask and a pair of bright blue synthetic gloves. By early March, the Italian government announced an alarming national shortage of protective masks (Il Giornale 2020).

When the school closure was first announced, it seemed like a drastic measure, restaurants, bars, and clothing stores were still open and while the number of tourists in the city center had noticeably declined since early February, it wasn’t hard to stumble upon small groups of tourists relishing the unusually short lines for entry to the Colosseum and posing for dramatic photos at the increasingly empty Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. On March 1st, Wanted in Rome magazine published an article entitled, “Why Now is a Great Time to Visit Rome,” urging would-be visitors to take advantage of the opportunity to “visit Rome’s greatest landmarks minus the crowds” (Wanted in Rome 2020).

On Sunday, March 8th, four days after the initial school closure announcement, the Italian government closed all museums, cinemas, and theaters. At this point, restaurants and bars were still open but only between 6 am and 6 pm. Meanwhile, our boarding students had begun arriving home and several boarders reported being required (some by their parents and some by their home-country’s governments) to self-quarantine at home as a preventative measure when they arrived from Italy.

Sunday morning, March 8th, I went to a yoga class at a studio near Piazza Navona and stopped by Forno Roscioli for pizza on the way home. I was surprised to find a long line outside the bakery and a man wearing a surgical mask and gloves at the door instructing us to wait our turn to enter and stand 1 meter apart in line. Italians waiting in a single-file line, standing one meter apart? I had my doubts but I was quickly proved wrong when the lady in front of me admonished me for standing so close to her. As more masked patrons began to arrive, I began to feel guilty about my own unmasked appearance and resolved to purchase a box of masks that afternoon. On Monday morning, I received an email from the yoga studio announcing they would be closing indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak. I bought more masks. The next day, I joined the yoga studio for a virtual class on Zoom.

On Tuesday, March 10th, the lockdown which was already underway in the hard-hit Lombardy and Veneto regions was extended to the entire country and, suddenly, we found ourselves unable to leave our houses except in cases of absolute necessity such as going to the grocery store, pharmacy, or hospital. Now, when leaving our houses, we must carry a self-declaration form justifying our outing (and, naturally, we are encouraged to wear masks).

Going for a walk or a run outside appears to still be legal but, in my case, engaging in this activity, a hobby which usually reduces my stress level (and happens to be part of my job as a Running Coach), has become a nightmare. Despite clear statements on the Ministry of the Interior’s website, allowing “attività motoria,” so long as it is not performed in groups, in just one week I have been stopped twice by law enforcement and admonished for leaving my house. In both cases, the officers who stopped me insisted that the nationwide decree prohibited running. Each time, I reluctantly ran home only to google the latest government decree and determine that yes, in fact, running outside, alone, is still allowed. On the morning of March 17th, an elderly woman accosted me on Via del Corso with shouts of  “vergognati”. The suggestion that I should be ashamed of myself for keeping up my daily running habit was unnerving. I started to wonder whether it was finally time to just give up and start running up and down my hallway. At least then I would be able to run in peace.

Two days later, I took to running laps around the vacant St. Stephen’s driveway. Fellow Running Coach Liz Johnson and I clocked an 8 km run in just under an hour (keeping at least two meters distance between us at all times, naturally). For the next few weeks, this will become our new routine. Luckily we have our favorite stray cat, a grey and white feline the teachers have affectionately named “Stephen” to keep us company from his comfy perch on the school’s front steps as we run in circles.

The lockdown hasn’t just changed our daily habits, it has also changed teachers and students’ approaches to learning. For one tenth grader, the switch to distance learning has had unexpected benefits. As Vittoria explains, “the beauty [of virtual learning] is that some lessons are recorded and therefore can be seen several times, but my favorites are those on zoom where we can talk to teachers… I also see many of my classmates. Everything seems unreal but when we see each other we immediately feel close even if physically distant.” For other students, the experience has been more stressful. One 12th grade student complained to me that, since their entire family began working and studying remotely, it has become impossible to find a quiet corner of the house for watching and participating in online lectures.

Biology teacher (and Running Coach) Liz Johnson has found that, while intimidating at first, online teaching is not as difficult as she feared it might be; in her words, “I am happy to say that switching from regular teaching to online distance learning has not been as challenging as I had expected… Although online distance learning seemed like it could be an insurmountable challenge at first, the students have taken to it quite well. My seniors are engaged, attentive, participate often, and if they can’t be there at the live lesson, I am confident they are able to work confidently and independently from home.”

St. Stephen’s is not the only school grappling with the consequences of distance learning; we’re part of a global transition. As Joshua Kim at Inside Higher Ed explains, “never before, in the history of higher education, have so many people, in so many different roles, worked so hard to reach a single objective. That objective is the rapid transition from face-to-face instruction to remote learning” (Inside Higher Ed 2020). While Kim is concerned with colleges and universities, he might as well be talking about all schools. Here at St. Stephen’s, the transition has been a community effort. Our Head Librarian and Director of the iLab, Elizabeth Di Cataldo, has led the charge. Di Cataldo sends daily emails to faculty detailing how to use video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Loom and how to record screencasts (where teachers can record their computer screen and talk over the recording) using Screencastify. Fortunately, many EdTech tools which used to require paid subscriptions have started offering free services for teachers through the end of May.

As Di Cataldo explains, “The faculty at St Stephen's has been able to continue teaching through our Google Suite of tools for Education, which has been in place for several years.  Teachers and students have used Google Classroom in conjunction with Docs, Sheets, Forms, Slides and other tools to share material, post assignments, upload videos, and submit all of their academic work.  We closed just a couple of weeks before we were to host a 2 day Google for Education event on campus, but teachers have quickly picked up on new tricks and methods by working together and accessing tutorials or asking for help when needed.  Adding in video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Google Meet, teachers have been able to meet most of their students live and record the meeting for asynchronous learning by our students who are farther away and learning in other time zones.”  In just a few weeks, teachers who had barely used Google Classroom before have become veritable tech gurus, acquiring new skills that will continue to enhance their teaching skillset beyond the duration of the lockdown. For Di Cataldo, this is an unexpected benefit: “Who knows where this experience will take us moving forward!”

Learning how to teach and study online has been a challenge. Over the course of these past two weeks, teachers and students have come to realize that distance teaching and learning is not simply a substitute for classroom instruction; it is inherently different. Neither students nor their teachers can stare at screens from 8:30 am to 4 pm, so teachers have had to get creative: combining live lectures, prerecorded audio and video content, and independent activities and writing assignments to provide students with a variety of tasks that provide breaks from the intensity of live online lectures. When teaching at a distance, quality trumps quantity.

In a time of unprecedented confusion and stress, as we find ourselves physically separated from our closest friends and mentors, our ability to remain flexible and adapt quickly has never been more salient. Though physically distant, “locked down” in our respectives houses and apartment blocks, we are discovering that the only way to remain sane and keep moving forward is to renew with enthusiasm our commitment to the education of ourselves and our students.

For Johnson, the most rewarding part of this experience has been seeing how this new challenge has united our community: “I am proud of my colleagues who are all working around the clock to support our students and make this transition to online learning as seamless and easy as possible.” By working together, we will emerge from this crisis as better educators, and, if we do it right, as better, more compassionate humans.


Works Cited

Biloslavo, Fausto. "L'Italia ora è senza mascherine. Le abbiamo 'regalate' alla Cina." Il Giornale, 7 Mar. 2020, www.ilgiornale.it/news/politica/mascherine-lue-abbandona-litalia-1837056.html.
Accessed 19 Mar. 2020.

Kim, Joshua. "COVID-19, Remote Learning and the Beauty of All Hands on Deck." Inside Higher Ed, 18 Mar. 2020
Accessed 19 Mar. 2020.

Pullella, Phillip. "Vatican Closes Italy's Catacombs Due to Coronavirus." Reuters, 27 Feb. 2020, www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-vatican-catacombs/vatican-closes-italys-catacombs-due-to-coronavirus-idUSKCN20L2UE.
Accessed 20 Mar. 2020.

Wanted in Rome. "Why Now Is a Great Time to Visit Rome." Wanted in Rome, 1 Mar. 2020, www.wantedinrome.com/news/why-now-is-a-great-time-to-visit-rome.html.
Accessed 18 Mar. 2020.

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