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Rome music school bans all East Asian students from class amid coronavirus fears

Staff and students at a prestigious Rome music school were left shocked and angry after the director banned all East Asian students from classes amid fears of the coronavirus. Rhys Talbot reports from Rome.

Rome music school bans all East Asian students from class amid coronavirus fears
Photo: AFP

The director of Rome's Santa Cecilia conservatory, Roberto Giuliano, told school professors of the suspension in an email sent on the afternoon of January 29th, Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported.

The blanket ban applies to “East Asian students (Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, etc.), as well as others from affected countries”, the director wrote, irrespective of whether those students had recently travelled to areas affected by the disease.

The ban will remain in place until students are cleared by a medical exam organised by the university, the email stated.

“The conservatory doctor will visit them all on Wednesday February 5th. Only those who pass the check can be readmitted to attendance.”

Staff and students raised concerns about the indiscriminate testing of all students of certain nationalities, with one music teacher saying he felt “shocked” at the director's message, and calling it “insane.”

“It will discriminate, spread fear, it's absurd,” the teacher told La Repubblica.

The teacher also disputed a claim made by Giuliano in the email that “the conservatory's doctor” would perform the ordered examinations, saying: “What doctor? We've never had one.”

READ ALSO Coronavirus: Spike in reports of 'racist' abuse of Chinese people in Italy

The 81 East Asian students at Santa Cecilia have asked to meet with the director and other senior staff, without success at the time of writing.

“We've just seen the director leave the building and walk away,” said Kim, 25, and Hwang, 24, two South Korean students who had gone to the conservatory to demand answers.

Neither of them have ever visited China.

“I haven't even been home to Korea in two years,” Kim told The Local. “We're not against checks in themselves, but this is madness – it's wrong for them to test only Asian students.”

They claimed that while they themselves had not yet tried to enter the building, another Asian student had been refused access by security staff.

William, 24, a Chinese student of opera at the conservatory, told The Local he questioned the motives of the direction, complaining that the move was “quite racist”.

He questioned why Chinese students who had not visited their home country in more than six months, and therefore had as much probability of exposure as their Italian classmates, were being treated differently. Nonetheless, he thought it would be appropriate for Chinese students who had visited China over the past two months, since the beginning of the current outbreak, to be isolated and tested for the virus.

READ ALSO: How concerned should you be about the coronavirus in Italy?

The director's move came on the heels of previous accusations of unequal treatment of East Asian students at Santa Cecilia.

In November 2019, tuition fees for foreign students from certain countries, including Japan, China and South Korea, were raised significantly – to up to 8,000 euros per year for certain courses while Italian and EU students pay a maximum of 1800 euros.

A group of students from these three countries has asked for legal advice from the Chinese embassy to fight against the raise in fees.

Kim gave voice to the frustrations of many of her classmates: 'We pay 6,000 euros a year, and they treat us like this?'

Chinese people in Italy have reported suffering discrimination this week amid the coronavirus scare. Photo: AFP

Other music schools in Italy have adopted less dramatic measures. The Como Conservatory has asked all students returning from trips to China to not come to classes for fourteen days after the date of their return.

A Chinese student at the Franco Vittadini Conservatory in Pavia, who recently returned to Italy after a trip to his hometown near Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, was accompanied to hospital by his tutor for testing. Although the results of the tests were negative, the University has advised the student to quarantine himself for fourteen days.

The controversy unfolded amid growing fears of the spread of the coronavirus, shortly before the first two cases in the country were confirmed in Rome.

Two Chinese tourists, thought to be husband and wife, who were staying at a hotel in central Rome tested positive for the virus on Thursday.

The Italian government on Thursday night suspended all flights to and from China as a result.

Over 6,000 tourists spent Thursday stranded on a cruise ship at Civitavecchia, a port north-west of Rome, after authorities said two Chinese passengers were feared to have the coronavirus.

Those two suspected cases tested negative, and passengers were allowed to disembark on Thursday night.

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Explained: What are Italy’s Covid rules for schools in September?

After Italy's education ministry confirmed Covid vaccination and mask mandates in schools will not be renewed by September, here's a look at the health precautions in place as school restarts.

Explained: What are Italy’s Covid rules for schools in September?

Italy’s education ministry has indicated that most pandemic-related precautions will be dropped in the new academic year – including rules requiring teachers to be vaccinated and masks to be worn at all times in class.

An official memo sent out to schools ahead of the 2022-23 school year confirmed that these and other health measures in place last year will expire on August 31st.

READ ALSO: Italy’s unvaccinated teachers to return to class as Covid rules ease

No replacement protocol for schools has been announced – despite the fact that health experts agree the pandemic is by no means over.

For now, it looks as though Italian students of all ages will return to class next month with few health measures in place.

However, this doesn’t mean there will be no precautions taken in schools at all. 

Masking requirements and vaccination rules will no longer be in place as Italy begins the new school year.
File photo: Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Schools are still required to apply a set of ‘strategic indications’ published by Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS), intended to contain the spread of coronavirus at times when the risk of contagion is lower, and to prepare schools to respond quickly in case infection rates surge.

These rules (see them here in full) state:

  • Students are allowed to attend class except in the case of fever or a positive Covid test result;
  • Pupils or staff “at risk of developing severe forms of Covid” need to wear FFP2 masks;
  • Schools should ensure correct hand hygiene and “respiratory etiquette” (covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, using paper tissues, etc);
  • “Frequent air changes” should be ensured in school buildings, as well as regular cleaning, and extra cleaning “in the presence of one or more confirmed cases”.

The health ministry may also bring in further health measures later in the year if deemed necessary, according to Italian media reports.

But for now, there’s no one to make the rules: Italy currently has a caretaker government in place as a month-long election campaign starts this week. 

Any new pandemic-related restrictions this autumn, in schools or elsewhere, will depend on the inclinations of the next government – which won’t take office until October at the very earliest.

Italy’s schools restart in mid-September, with the exact dates varying by region.

Find more information about Italy’s Covid-19 health restrictions on the Italian health ministry’s website (available in English).