Unions Accuse DoD of Putting Teachers in Italy at Risk with Coronavirus Policy

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Police officers check passengers leaving from Milan main train station, Italy
Police officers and soldiers check passengers leaving from Milan main train station, Italy, Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Teachers at military base schools in Italy are being put at risk by the conflict between Defense Department policy and authorities in Rome on travel to work during the coronavirus epidemic, according to union officials.

Amy Ney, a union representative for the Overseas Federation of Teachers who has taught high school biology for 27 years at U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza in northeastern Italy, cited the case of a base teacher who has been told she must report to work on base for teleteaching even though the schools have been shut down to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The woman is pregnant and also has two small children at her off-base home, Ney said.

"She has to choose between being a good parent and a good teacher," she added.

Related: Check out Military.com's Coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage

Ney said by phone that "our students stay at home" for teleteaching "but we have to go to work to do it" despite the travel restrictions in Italy, where more than 8,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported and 463 had died as of Monday.

On Sunday, the Italian government ordered schools shut down, banned public gatherings and imposed strict travel restrictions in northern Italy through at least April 3 in an effort to contain the coronavirus, or COVID-19. On Monday, the restrictions were extended to the whole country.

"The whole of Italy will become a protected zone," Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said. The message of the essential quarantine of the whole nation is, "Stay at home," Conte said.

On March 6, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Overseas Federation of Teachers President Linda Hogan wrote to Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) Director Tom Brady, charging that teachers are being "recklessly placed in harm's way" by DoD policy.

Teachers at base schools in Vicenza, Livorno and Aviano are "being forced to physically report to schools under penalty of loss of pay to conduct online instruction for students who have been sent home," the letter to Brady states.

Weingarten and Hogan demanded that DODEA act to protect a total of 700 teachers working at base schools in Italy, Bahrain, Spain and Turkey.

Base school managers "in any countries or areas with outbreaks" of COVID-19 should be directed "to close schools and allow teachers to telework safely from home," according to the letter.

"Asking teachers to report to work every day when students are at home is not only ridiculous, it's also unsafe," Weingarten said in a statement.

In a statement to Military.com, Hogan said: "I am currently spending every waking moment talking with teachers, and trying to create a solution for the teachers to continue educating their students during this crisis, but keep them safe at the same time."

"I honestly believe that teleworking from home is the only way to guarantee both," Hogan added.

As of Monday, the unions had received no response. But DODEA officials said in a statement to Mililtary.com on Monday that the mission to educate children "has been greatly challenged in northern Italy over the last few weeks when DoDEA's schools were closed to students by U.S. military commanders as they followed the lead of the host country."

"Everyone responded immediately when, with little advance notice, schools were closed in Vicenza, Aviano, and Livorno," the statement said.

However, "Both the collaboration and support are greatly facilitated by teachers reporting to work in the schools, using preventive measures recommended by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]" and military public health officials, the statement adds.

The statement did not say how many teachers are being ordered to report to work despite the travel restrictions imposed by the Italian government, but said that teachers are "at no more risk in this regard than any other civilian employees on the installations."

The statement was issued before Italian authorities extended the restrictions to the whole country, and it was not immediately clear whether DODEA would change the rules in response.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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