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Italy’s schools are set to welcome students next month, but first they need millions of new desks

A student appears before professors in an end-of-the-school-year test June 17, 2020, in a classroom furnished with both single desks and the two-seat desks traditionally used in Italian schools. (Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket/Getty Images)
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ROME — The request for proposals was marked "extremely urgent," and it laid out the details of what the Italian government was looking to buy: 3 million single-seat children's desks to replace the traditional two-
person desks and allow the country to start the new school year with social distancing.

But the request was a titanic one.

The government wanted a rush order, everything built and shipped within the next month. The tender, announced July 20, asked for as many desks as all the Italian school-furniture companies put together would normally build in five years.

“I almost drove into oncoming traffic when I heard,” said Alessandro Zecchin, the managing director of one company, Gonzagarredi Montessori.

“I personally know everybody in Europe who makes school furniture,” said Emidio Salvatorelli, president of another company, Vastarredo. “It can’t be done.”

With its smooth economic reopening and now one of the lowest coronavirus infection rates in Europe, Italy would seem to have as good a chance as any nation in the West of pulling off a safe school year. But the run-up to its planned Sept. 14 school start has provided a reminder that in the coronavirus era, even such mundane considerations as furniture can complicate educators’ plans.

Coronavirus infections haven’t spiked since Europe loosened lockdowns. There are many theories about why.

For weeks now, Italian politicians and school administrators have been agonizing about desks, unsure of whether they can be made in time and what to do if they aren’t.

“It may not be ‘mission impossible,’ but it will be close,” said Mario Rusconi, the head of a principals association in the region that includes Rome.

The Italian government announced Wednesday that it is awarding contracts to 11 companies, or groups of companies, to build 2.5 million desks — shy of what was in the initial tender. Still, the government said, that is enough to satisfy the requests of principals across the country, and it offered assurances that the school year could begin on schedule.

But furniture makers, and some school leaders, say it won’t be clear until later whether the mass-scale desk mission can succeed. The government acknowledged that some of the desks it is ordering won’t be ready until October, after the school year has begun.

One Roman high school principal compared the situation to a game of Risk, with “extreme complications” if the desks don’t arrive. Her school needs 300 of them. Without those desks, two-seat tables would have to be used as single-seaters. Classroom capacity would shrink. And a portion of students every day — about one-seventh of the high school — would have to stay home and take classes online.

“Even today, I was looking at maps like a surveyor, trying to make this work,” said Cristina Costarelli, the principal of Isaac Newton High School in Rome. “There are too many unknowns to have even a modicum of serenity.”

The desks are just one of the logistical challenges playing out this summer as Italy races to prepare for the school year.
At the government’s urging, schools are trying to find spaces in museums, movie theaters and church buildings so they can reduce class sizes and keep students a safe distance apart. The country is trying to hire 50,000 new teachers and ­support staffers, including janitors.

But the debate over the desks has become the biggest flash point — triggering finger-pointing, consuming a parliamentary hearing and angering Italian furniture makers, who say the government underestimates the difficulty of producing so many desks so quickly.

Before the pandemic, some Italian schools had been gradually phasing out the two-student desks and replacing them with the single-seat version common in American classrooms. But that process is now supposed to occur in a matter of weeks. A scientific committee advising the government has said the single-seat desks are a key part of the school restart.

Reopened schools in Europe and Asia have largely avoided coronavirus outbreaks. They have lessons for the U.S.

“Certainly, the need we brought to the market is an extraordinary one,” Italy’s special commissioner for the coronavirus, Domenico Arcuri, told Parliament in late July. Politicians then spent more than an hour asking how the plan could possibly work. One lawmaker said that even China couldn’t come to the rescue; desks built there would take several weeks to arrive by ship.

In a television interview last week, Arcuri raised the idea of calling in the army to assist with distribution.

“The army has given us extraordinary help during the darkest and most devastating months of this crisis,” he said. “I’m sure that if we ask them, they’ll be able to help us deliver desks, too.”

Those in the school-furniture industry say no one company in Europe has the ability to quickly step in and single-handedly produce what Italy has requested.

A group of Italian companies — accounting for about 80 percent of the domestic school-furniture market — said they were among the firms that have offered to help, but at a level short of the government’s requirements.

Italy’s Education Ministry declined to respond to questions, but the minister, Lucia Azzolina, said on an Italian TV show in late July that the single-person seats are a “black-and-white” need. She did not directly answer a question about how schools would cope without the desks. She called the media coverage of the hunt for desks “apocalyptic” and criticized Italian newspapers for raising doubts about progress, accusing them of causing unnecessary anxiety.

“We will reopen schools on September 14,” she said. “We have to stop scaring families.”

But Rusconi, the president of the Lazio region’s principals association, said that in the chat rooms to which he belongs, school leaders also are worried.

“I think we’ll be forced to start with online courses or using only chairs,” one principal said in the chat room.

Rusconi said that even if everything went right and the desks arrived on time, the headache for schools wouldn’t be over. They’d be receiving the single-seat desks as students arrived, and they’d still have to get rid of all the old furniture. Who would take that off their hands?

“Those old desks,” he said, “may be left in yards and corridors.”

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