Pontifical Schools in Rome to Reopen With Caution Amid Italy’s COVID-19 Restrictions

Despite the specter of a second wave of COVID-19 in Italy, Catholic schools of higher education in the Holy City are willing to ensure a return to normalcy for students thanks to scrupulous safety protocols.

Pope Francis is shown making a surprise visit on March 25, 2019, to the Pontifical Lateran University, where he led the Lenten "Lectio Divina" meditation that the university organizes every year for the academic community. The university resumes in-person classes next month.
Pope Francis is shown making a surprise visit on March 25, 2019, to the Pontifical Lateran University, where he led the Lenten "Lectio Divina" meditation that the university organizes every year for the academic community. The university resumes in-person classes next month. (photo: Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

After months of struggling with the COVID-19 health crisis that paralyzed all of Italy — followed by the usual summer break for students — the pontifical universities, institutes and atheneums of Rome will reopen their doors and once again provide their students with an opportunity to learn about the Catholic faith in on-campus classrooms, beginning Oct. 5. 

Faculty and staff had to show adaptability during the lockdown — especially by continuing to interact with students through remote classrooms in order not to leave anyone behind in their studies. Nonetheless, the practical organization of a safe return for students to campus has been a real headache for administration officials.  

All of Rome’s Catholic institutions of learning have based their protocols on the various legislative decrees issued by Italian health authorities, but each institution also developed for students, faculty and staff a personalized vademecum(handbook) on the safety measures to be followed according to its own practical needs and abilities.  


Return to Normal 

For all these schools, the watchword for the start of this new academic year will be, to the greatest extent possible, normality. 

“The level of normality will, of course, depend on the world evolution of the coronavirus, but the academic board really wishes to favor the in-person mode for the beginning of classes and to ensure a serene climate,” said Giovanni Tridente, communication director for the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. Tridente added that strict compliance with the rules will play an important role in the process. 

Measures to avoid the spread of the virus in Rome’s Catholic educational establishments include administering thermal scans at entrances to school buildings and providing strategically placed hydroalcoholic gel dispensers throughout campus. School staff will also be frequently disinfecting classrooms and common spaces, creating differentiated paths in high-traffic areas to avoid close-contact gatherings, implementing aeration systems in classrooms to ensure continuous air recycling, and maintaining social distancing by limiting student numbers in classrooms. But despite the classroom limits, schools intend to retain usual attendance numbers for a given class through simultaneous live broadcast or livestreaming of courses in other locations on campus. 

In addition, when social distancing isn’t possible, individuals will be required to wear masks. 

“Every day we will have to put aside some of our own self-interests for the good of others in our community; this at times will pose a challenge but is necessary for a successful year,” wrote rector Father Michal Paluch of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome in a letter to students and staff. He also explained that the newly published security plan can still be subject to changes, as the Italian government’s regulations evolve regularly. 

Although the number of daily deaths and new hospitalizations remain steady in the country, the increase in the number of positive new cases over the past two weeks has caused a strengthening of sanitary and political restrictions of people’s activities and movements in Italy — notably through the closure of the country’s nightclubs and the obligation to wear masks in public from 6pm to 6am. 


Online Class for International Students

As these Catholic institutions aim at as much normality as possible in preparing for on-campus classes to begin in October, they must also take into account the COVID situation in other countries as they welcome new and returning foreign students.

Since the pontifical institutions all have a strong international presence, with a significant number of students coming from the U.S. and South American countries that are still reporting clusters of rising COVID cases and have imposed travel restrictions, the schools and their foreign students are striving to adapt to these additional challenges. 

For example, the Congregation for Catholic Education is allowing pontifical establishments to offer remote-learning programs during the 2020-2021 academic year for all those students who won’t be able to go to Rome in the coming months. 

One of the schools adopting the remote-learning model is the Pontifical University of the Lateran, which has created a platform that provides recorded lectures that students can attend remotely, both in real time and at a later time, according to the countries’ time zones. “This platform also allows us to monitor who actually had access to a lesson,” said Vincenzo Buonomo, rector of the Lateran University, in an interview with the press agency Sir. In speaking about the school’s decision to offer remote learning, Buonomo said, “It is not the physical place which makes the university, but the relationship between professors and students.” 


Maintaining Commitments

According to Tridente, the strength and authenticity of such a relationship, rooted in the Catholic faith, has enabled the thousands of students at these institutions to finish their 2019-2020 academic year in the best possible conditions. 

“Even during the lockdown, there has been a strong mobilization on the part of the teaching staff, who had to reinvent, in just a few days, all of their methodology and programs in order to provide support to everyone,” Tridente told the Register. “And this year, we will maintain our commitment to ensure that no one loses an opportunity to learn within the normal course of academic activity.” 



Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.