The first COVID-19 case in Italy was registered on 21 February 2020, thrusting Italy into a state of emergency which quickly produced burdensome economic and social effects. The decrees approved by the Italian government introduced restrictions on travel and socializing, culminating in lockdown. Although all these measures made it possible to limit the risks of contagion, they had numerous consequences regarding men and women’s personal and professional conditions.
Considering the full extent of the effects brought on by the pandemic would involve a lengthy in-depth analysis, so we choose to limit our attention to how social institutions, family and school reacted to the pandemic. Italy was among the first countries to experience the pandemic, but over the course of the year other countries were gradually affected too.
Among the different continents where COVID-19 spread, Latin America stands out. If in Europe Italy suffered and paid a high cost in terms of human lives, countries such as Mexico, Peru and Chile were also hard hit by the pandemic. Therefore, it seems crucial to analyse the main changes that occurred regarding educational and family institutions in Italy and Mexico, two countries that show some similarities with respect to both the inequalities present in families and the school learning process, and their reactions to the crisis.
From a comparative European perspective, Italy came into the crisis with a welfare service system with on average fewer human, infrastructural and financial resources compared to many other Western countries, as well as a more poorly functioning public administration. There were two main characteristics of the pandemic: a health emergency caused by COVID-19 and an economic and social crisis resulting from the pandemic containment measures. The epidemiological emergency highlighted the country’s weaknesses, especially from the structural and organizational point of view. They became evident in several areas: institutional, with the coordination difficulties between central government, the regions and local authorities; economic and financial, with the weight of the public debt, the failure to rationalize social spending on the health system, as well as a certain lack of coordination and means that also involved the education system.
In Latin America, the crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic affected the countries at the macropolitical, organizational and managerial level. Consequently, it was necessary to reorganize education and set up emergency education programmes. The countries ensured far-reaching access to Internet connections and the availability of appropriate devices as well as suitable training for teachers. Had this not been done, the gap would have risked widening out of control due precisely to the worsening of pre-existing structural difficulties that had never been resolved.
Mexico and Italy show a high degree of educational inequality. In these countries, the reproduction of social disadvantages stemming from family origins is so strong that the chances of social mobility for the less advantaged are significantly reduced. The pandemic emphasized this peculiarity of the Mexican and Italian systems, as households and domestic space were involved in school activities to a greater extent than usual. The prolonged lockdown and consequent reliance on remote education played an important role in exacerbating existing inequalities too. The long-term closure of schools reinforced the role of household resources. These resources include not only the cultural and social capital of parents, but also digital equipment, the availability of a private space in uncrowded housing, and the time at the parents and other family members’ disposal to assist children in their learning activities.
How was the dilemma between family and work, life times and care work, remote work and children in online schooling dealt with in 2020? How can we understand the changes that took place in the family-work system in the light of the crisis? With regard to the pandemic, we can reread some transformations in the family / education / work system and their implications in term of inequalities, especially relating to equal opportunities between men and women, since the latter seem to have paid the highest price for the COVID-19 crisis in both countries.
The conditions posed by the pandemic hit the always challenging but consolidated organizational habits in the work-family balance. While this happened everywhere, in contexts such as the Italian one, with a system of ineffective services and support, the pandemic period acted as a sort of magnifying glass, taking these conditions to the extreme in terms of the complexity that structurally characterize the work-family balance and educational opportunities for children.
In neither country were families prepared for distance learning and home schooling. This unpreparedness may have been due to different factors: parents’ low educational status, issues with negotiating care and work duties, language difficulties for immigrant families, not having a suitable environment for distance learning. The pandemic demonstrated the great resilience of families in Italy and Mexico, but also social, economic, cultural and educational divide.