Teacher weathers shutdown far from her native Port

An educator in Rome, PWHS grad Sara Westerbeke has had to live under restrictions far greater than those in the U.S.

PORT WASHINGTON NATIVE Sara Westerbeke, who lives and teaches school in Rome, sat outside the Coliseum just weeks before Italy was locked down due to the coronavirus.
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington native Sara Westerbeke has been on lockdown since March 3 — not in her hometown, but in Rome, Italy, the center of the European coronavirus pandemic.

It’s been a trying time, not just for her  but for her fifth-grade students at the Ambrit International School in Rome, Westerbeke, a 2011 graduate of Port Washington High School, said.

But now that Italy is starting to relax the nationwide lockdown, opening small businesses such as bookstores and children’s clothing shops, she’s looking forward to the little things.

“Maybe we can step out and get coffee,” she said. “Maybe we can take a walk and not get yelled at.” 

By the end of May, she said, restaurants may be able to open, but only until 6 p.m. — hours before most Italians eat their dinner.

The restrictions in Italy are far greater than those in the U.S. Westerbeke said residents carry a certificate with them at all times and are only allowed to leave their homes to go to the hospital, doctor or grocery store — and they have to go to the nearest market. 

If she only needs a few things, she said, she will go to a small market where the lines are smaller but once a week she heads to the closest supermarket, where she waits in line for an hour or two. Only seven or eight people are allowed in the store at one time, she noted, and as people get up to the door they and the carts are sprayed with disinfectant. Everyone wears masks.

“One person goes out, and one goes in,” Westerbeke said. “Even in line, you don’t stand with a partner. Husbands and wives don’t go to the store together; only one is allowed to go.”

Although the store is considered a large market, it’s only about a quarter to a third of the size of Piggly Wiggly in Port, Westerbeke noted.

Police are out in force, stopping motorists and pedestrians to ensure they are following the rules.

“If you’re in a car, you’ll be stopped by police asking why you’re out,” Westerbeke said. “Many, many people have gotten tickets.”

The fines for being out without permission can exceed $3,000, she added.

Taking a walk “is kind of on the bubble” of what’s allowed, Westerbeke said, noting that with temperatures this time of year in the 70s and sunny skies, it’s difficult to stay indoors.

Residents are supposed to stay within 50 meters of their home, she added. For her that’s a walk around the block.

“In some regions, it’s not allowed at all,” she said. “I have been stopped. Sometimes they tell me, ‘Go home.’ But I make myself go outside every day and take laps around the block. I feel better then.

“It’s been a learning curve.”

While the lockdown has been challenging for Italians, who are a social people, by and large they have supported and not challenged the lockdown, Westerbeke said.

“Our minister does have a lot of support from the citizens,” she said. “The attitude is ‘Let’s get this over with. This is what we have to do — we can’t support this getting any worse.’

“Everybody’s trying to keep each other positive.”

At 6 p.m. each night, the day’s numbers — the number of people sick from Covid-19 and those who have died — are broadcast.”

Then, she said, people go to their balconies and celebrate. “Our neighbors play the national anthem and sing,” she said. “We have a neighbor who serenades us. People yell ‘andra tutto bene’ (everything will be okay) at each other and wave.”

The lockdown came quickly, Westerbeke said. On March 3 — two days after classes resumed following a weeklong break during which many students and their families traveled to northern Italy to ski in the Alps — she was in her classroom teaching when the principal came in and took her aside to tell her that the school would be closing in five minutes and the lockdown imposed.

“We had no warning,” Westerbeke said. “We had five minutes to get things together.”

While her students study current events and were aware of the pandemic, Westerbeke said, “they didn’t think it would enter into their reality.”

She tried to keep her students calm while giving them as much schoolwork as possible, not knowing how long the lockdown would last.

Since then, Westerbeke’s been teaching online from her apartment just outside the walls of Vatican City.

“I feel fortunate I was born in the technology age,” Westerbeke said. 

It was a learning curve, both for her students and the teaching staff, she said. noting that in the first few weeks she was at the computer for 10 to 12 hours a day teaching, getting the next day’s lessons in order, grading assignments and answering emails.

“For the first two to three weeks, I was literally getting hundreds of emails,” she said.

Now, Westerbeke said, she fills her days with teaching, cooking and cleaning. 

She and her roommate, who is also a teacher, have a key to the roof of their building, so they will go up there to read.

“You feel like you’re outdoors up there,” Westerbeke said.

It’s been hard, especially for her students.

“I’m sad for my kids,” she said, noting her 20 students come from 10 countries and are on the cusp of moving to middle school. “They’re a very tight-knit group, and they want their fifth-grade graduation.”

Westerbeke said she considered moving back to Wisconsin when the lockdown began but decided against it. Not only did she not want to potentially carry the disease back to Port, she said, but she didn’t want to get into a situation where she would be unable to return to Rome if classes resumed quickly.

And, she said, given the seven-hour time difference, teaching students in Italy from the U.S. would have meant getting up in the middle of the night to talk to them.

“I have enough of a community here that it was a good decision to stay here,” she said.


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