The dining table has become a home classroom for Melissa and her roommate Lindsay. Photo provided.

When coronavirus first appeared on teacher Melissa’s personal radar, she and colleagues didn’t take it very seriously. That changed quickly for the US citizen who lives and works in Lombardia, a northern region of Milan, Italy, that became the ground zero of the virus in Europe.

Melissa says a couple who worked at the same school in Milan last year now live in Shanghai and, having spent the Chinese New Year holiday in Vietnam, had been told not to return to their school in China.

“They came to Milan before heading home to Canada, so we joked about how coronavirus was a lucky circumstance that reunited us all,” she says.

A few weeks later, Melissa and fellow teachers were out on a Friday when some mentioned there had been a few cases of Covid-19 in the province.

“We again joked because the bar had covered up the Corona labels on the beer,” she says. “We had no idea that would be the last time we saw each other for the school year.”

The infection rate quickly exploded in Italy, centred on Lombardy, with more than 30,000 deaths attributed to coronavirus as of early May.

“Our region was the first to shut down, the first to close off from the rest of the country,” Melissa says. “We felt the lockdown earlier and harder than any other part of the country. We also know that we will likely be the last to ease restrictions.”

Melissa says Italy was initially “all over the place” in its response to Covid-19’s rapid global spread, with the Prime Minister, regional governors and mayors of major cities all saying different things.

“For example, at the very start the national government was encouraging lockdowns and the Mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, kept telling everyone ‘#MilanoNonSiFerma’, which basically means ‘Milan doesn’t stop’, encouraging people to still go out to eat and not let the virus scare them. However, when people started dying in droves, he quickly changed his tune.

“Now, everyone is on the same script it seems. Announcements are more centralized for the whole nation, and the ‘decrees’ that limit or ease restrictions are national and legally binding. My Italian reading skills have improved tremendously in this time because the relevant news for us locally is not often translated. However, my school is a bilingual school and thus they translate and share all of the major decrees with the staff.”

For Melissa and her Canadian roommate and fellow teacher, Lindsay, these decrees meant staying in their apartment except for grocery shopping, and then only one person could venture outside and must wear a mask, with fines of thousands of euro for not doing so.

“We lost everything we used to do for fun – going to the gym, eating out, seeing friends around town. We had to adapt and find new things to entertain ourselves separately, and common activities to do together.”

Melissa’s roommate spent a lot of time doing yoga and Melissa sang virtually with her church group from when she lived in the US. They watched favourite shows together and painted to occupy their time. Seven people in her apartment building work at the same school, and they grew much closer as they shared information, teaching resources and the experience of being an expat in a foreign country ravaged by coronavirus.

Both roommates taught from home five to six days a week, Melissa says.

“I teach drama classes, run extra drama clubs, including rehearsing a play, and mentor the Student Council. She teaches 4th grade.”

Each is on Zoom one to four hours a day, taking classes and planning meetings, and also nurture their mental health through video chats with a therapist, and interacting virtually with families and friends. Additional hours are spent reviewing online work submissions from the students.

“Our school is a 1-to-1 iPad school, so every kid is connected and turning in work, meaning we have hundreds of assignments to mark and give feedback on each week.”

Melissa said they have had to be creative in how they deliver content and engage students.

She teaches drama and special education, and had to jettison entire units of curriculum that wouldn’t work virtually, such as group physical theatre. In contrast, many students now have more attention from their parents, less distraction from their peers, and infinitely more time to complete work, she says, so the quality for some has grown enormously.

“There are definitely some kids flourishing with this new, more independent style, which will inform future in-person teaching I am sure.”

The students mostly miss their friends, she says, and some have lost grandparents to the disease, so the teachers make allowances on the work those students need to do. Melissa mentors the Student Council, which has developed “Well Being” challenges for their peers to stay healthy and happy by doing off-screen activities.

She mostly works with older students, in Years 4 and 5, and says they are reasonably well informed about what’s going on.

“It’s nice because our job as teachers is to create whatever normalcy we can, and not linger on the virus. I think the kids are grateful for the escape too,” she says.

In the first weeks of Italy’s lockdown, Melissa’s friends and family reached out through social media with concern for her, requests for updates, check-ins, and offers to video chat.

“Maybe it was a morbid fascination with a problem that didn’t seem to directly concern them,” she says. “When the coronavirus came to America, the check-ins stopped. I now reach out to THEM to make sure they are ok!”

Her family initially asked if she wanted to return to the US “to wait out this mess,” but it wasn’t a good option, she says. She would have no health insurance in the US, while she has full universal healthcare in Italy, and would have to be essentially nocturnal in the US to meet her work requirements and Zoom class times in Italy.

She also felt that flying at that point put her at high risk of catching the virus and suspected Italy may not allow foreigners to re-enter the country for a long time, so she might not be able to return to work in the fall.

Melissa says she and her roommate worked hard to keep their relationship healthy during the quarantine and she takes time every day to appreciate the comforts she has, despite the circumstances – “a secure job, a roof over my head, plentiful food supplies, an awesome roommate. I recognize it could be so much worse!

“I also am learning a lot on the practical side about technology and teaching, and how to creatively use tools to teach drama, technical theatre, and more!”

From May 4, Italy started relaxing restrictions after 11 weeks, reopening parks and allowing residents to exercise more than 200 metres from their homes.

Melissa says life hasn’t changed much, but being able to walk more and see friends while maintaining a safe distance is welcome. The wearing of masks is still mandatory and Italian residents appear very conscious of giving each other personal space.

She and her roommate are still teaching from home, taking up most of their time, but there is hope they may be allowed back into school buildings before the end of the year to collect possessions stranded there, and possibly meet with other teachers to plan the next academic year.

“I think the general feeling in the air is gratitude, because we have all been deprived for so long,” she says. “On the 18th stores will reopen, so it will be interesting to see how the dynamic changes.”