Schools across the country were shut down on March 10 and plan to reopen in mid-September.
  • In an effort to get schools in Italy prepared for reopenings in September, the government has asked for 3 million single-seat desks to be built.
  • Two students share a single table in many classrooms, but that will no longer be the case once all the new desks are distributed.
  • However, manufacturers and school leaders are unsure if the desks will arrive in time for classes to start.
  • The head of Sicily's regional task force plans to saw their current desks in half if new ones don't arrive in time.
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In a typical classroom across Italy, students were expected to have a deskmate. The two students would share a bench and sit just a few centimetres away from each other. 

But in an era of social distancing, this traditional setup may be forgotten.

On July 20, Italy's Education Ministry requested 3 million single-seat desks to be made in a notice labelled "extremely urgent". The goal is to have the desks, which are more ideal for social distancing, completed and distributed to schools by the time classes restart in mid-September. 

Manufacturers have shared that this number of desks typically takes five years to build, according to The Washington Post.

"I personally know everybody in Europe who makes school furniture," Emidio Salvatorelli, the president of the furniture company Vastarredo, told The Washington Post. "It can't be done."

The Italian government has contracted 11 companies to build 2.5 million desks, which is less than the original number requested. However, the government said that this will meet the country's needs and is paying for the millions of desks through its coronavirus emergency fund.

A student in a classroom with school desks that are arranged to keep a social distance in Borgosesia, Italy.

The single seats are a priority in Italy's school reopening plan

Italy's minister of education, Lucia Azzolina, referred to single seats as a "black-and-white" need on an Italian TV show.

All schools across the country have been closed since March, and they are expected to reopen on September 14. Beyond equipping schools with single-seat desks, they will also have limited class sizes with one meter of distance between each desk. Teachers will wear both masks and face shields, and students will wear masks. 

Additionally, some school districts are staggering start times or alternating days to minimize student contact. 

Some people have questioned if the desks will arrive by the start of the school year

The president of the National Association of Principals, Antonello Giannelli, called on the Italian government for an updated timeline of when the desks will arrive, and it's believed that the desks will be delivered to each school on varying dates between September and October.

According to the Italian news outlet, La Repubblica, Giannelli was visibly angry after learning that the desks may not arrive at some schools until October — weeks past the scheduled reopening date. 

However, the commissioner, Domenico Arcuri, reassured Giannelli and school leaders that the desks will be delivered based on each schools' need, schedule, and health priorities, and further guaranteed "the normal start of the school year in complete safety."

Over the years, schools have slowly been replacing the two-seat desks with one-seaters; however, the government is hoping to speed up the process.

The region of Sicily is considering another way to meet the need for single desks: sawing the current desks in half

With an uncertain delivery date on single-seat desks, the head of Sicily's regional task force, Adelfio Cardinale, has planned an unconventional way to separate students and their desks. 

"The hypothesis is to saw the benches, if they are made of wood, or otherwise separate them," he told the teaching organization platform Orizzonte Scuola. "We could use separators, also in wood, to avoid contact but the best solution remains to divide the benches."

Other schools are considering seating a single student at a two-seat desk, but this would take valuable space and potentially shrink classroom capacities.

Cardinale doesn't want that to happen, so he said his region will resort to sawing the desks if needed.

"It's an extreme solution to solve what is considered the biggest obstacle to overcome on the island," he said. 

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