I am a quarantined Italian teacher, and e-learning is no substitute for real

The past week has seen drastic changes all over the world, in particular, Italy. This began last week with a lockdown in northern Italy, the closure of schools and universities across the country, and now a complete lockdown across the whole nation. My life as a primary school teacher here in Tuscany has changed radically. I have been working at a private international school for two years, and what once involved me walking to school, interacting with colleagues and teaching in the classroom has now become an online, virtual experience. There have been many conversations online about whether coronavirus will usher in a new age of home working and e-learning. And while at first the kids have loved it, problems are cropping up, not least because the model favours the children of families with access to technology, space and time.

My school has looked to pioneers in e-learning in Asia, where teachers have already found their way through school closures and quarantines. We use a mixture of software to communicate between staff and with the students, including Google Hangouts, Zoom, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams and an e-learning app called Seesaw.

By day, my 40 sq ft apartment becomes a classroom. Where I used to relax and watch TV is now my very own recording studio where I film myself explaining tasks and demonstrating activities. Where I used to prepare meals together with my housemate and reflect on the day has become an area to produce props for these lessons. I found myself, the other day, sticking together two toilet rolls to make a model of a cow’s femur, on which I etched little drawings of jars and loaves of bread to show the children how people in Mesopotamia used to mark animal bones as a rudimentary form of payment.

My private life and work life are no longer separate – something that’s been made all the more noticeable by the closing of shops, cafes and all but a few supermarkets, which are now one-in, one-out, with staff wearing full protective clothing. We’re questioned by police if we go outside. Thankfully I live with a colleague, so we have each other to keep company. I know a lot of our friends who live alone are finding it really isolating. It’s quite an anxious time and will be taking a toll on people’s mental health.

I try to set all my activities the day before. Through Seesaw, we can schedule them to sync with what’s on the children’s timetable. As I want children to be responsible for their own learning, I try to set activities that are engaging and independent. Then, using FaceTime, I call eight of the children in my class, and work through a problem with them, before calling another eight. It’s been interesting to see the role the children’s families play – engaging the children, helping them out and congratulating them when they’ve done well. I heard one child’s parent cheer the other day as she had never heard him speak English before.

However, the model is heavily skewed to those with access to resources. I’m very aware that I’m working at a private school, where all our children have iPads. My friends at local state schools say they have been printing out stacks of papers containing all of the children’s exercises for the week, which their parents then collect for them on Monday mornings. They’re left to their own devices as to whether they complete these exercises or not.

The role of parents has been crucial to this e-learning experiment working, and again we teachers are very fortunate in this regard. Now the whole country is in lockdown, children have their parents around to help them with their schoolwork. I wonder whether, if a child’s parent or parents have to go out to work, that child will be at a disadvantage in terms of their learning? We have also noticed that, despite their best efforts, children are doing less work overall. Their parents are not teachers so cannot help them in the ways we are trained to do. And of course it is a major burden on the parents to have to take on this role in the background while they are trying to live their own lives and get on with their jobs.

My main concern though is for the children’s wellbeing, rather than their education. Children have boundless energy that needs space to flow. They’re cooped up indoors all day, and don’t get the chance to socialise. Our PE teachers are even running their classes by getting the pupils to send videos of themselves completing certain actions such as throwing a ball. Kids who have gardens are served a lot better. Some of my colleagues have expressed concerns about their pupils’ wellbeing, saying they’re slumped in front of their iPads, struggling a little to keep up morale. I try to get all of my kids to end each lesson with a silly face or a funny noise in a bid to keep the mood a lighter.

I really hope that come 3 April, when the government has said all of this will end, it does end. This time has provided a strange glimpse into the possible future of learning – and it’s one that has both its ups and downs. While it is an exciting step forward in upskilling students in digital literacy, does it come at the cost of deskilling their social, emotional and psychological selves? It also does not make for a system that provides equal outcomes. And I can’t help but think, is this the end of snow days?