Schools in the UAE are looking to create micro-groups of pupils who will arrive at different times and stay in their own zones for the next academic year.
On-campus learning had been suspended across all educational institutions in the UAE in March as a precautionary measure against the spread of Covid-19. Education went online as schools and colleges implemented e-learning. Various private school groups in Dubai have expressed their intention to re-open school campuses in different stages following the summer break.
Schools are working with the authorities, education regulators, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) and the Department of Education and Knowledge in Abu Dhabi (Adek) to find the best way to apparently bring back students on August 30 for the 2020-21 academic year.
"Clear guidelines have been developed that will be strictly implemented once the 'green light' is given to fully open our schools. The guidelines will be tailored by each school as their circumstances will differ depending on the curriculum, staffing, student numbers, building layout, capacity, and other factors. Taaleem is also planning 'a back to school campaign'. This will be communicated over the summer period to prepare parents, students, and staff for a safe return to their school," said Williamson.
Expansion of teaching space
Physical space available for teaching will be expanded by making use of libraries, community halls, leisure centres, conference venues and gyms, according to many headteachers.
"Class sizes will be significantly reduced, with most pupils spending about half their time in class and half learning at home. Time in school will increase further as soon as it is safe to do so. Some children could attend school in the morning while others will go after lunch or different groups of children could attend on alternate days or even alternate weeks," said Dr Aishah Siddiqua, director of Dubai National School Group.
Regardless of the parameters that schools will need to work with, they're striving to provide quality education. "We would optimise safety by implementing a 'pod' approach, in which contact between students and staff would be limited. Pods would consist of a limited number of students and a dedicated team of staff. Pods would have access to larger spaces and unique facilities such as the Eco-Maker Space, for specified periods," said Ken Jones, director of education, Praxis Education - The Arbor School.
Deepika Thapar Singh, CEO - Principal at Credence High School in Al Khail, added: "We have explored phased return to on-site schooling. In the first stage, students in early years, Grade 1 and Grade 2 and secondary may return to school. In the second stage, all other grades may return to school."
Schools assess pros and cons of learning methods
Shedding light on the pros and cons of on-site learning and elucidating on the gains made in these three months of distance learning, institute heads say that schools have been working on contingency plans and are now better prepared to work through many scenarios.
Online learning has its advantages but it cannot replace on-site learning said Deepika Thapar Singh, CEO - Principal at Credence High School in Al Khail. "At school, students learn how to make friends, be patient, get rid of disappointment, and especially to compete.
Competition between colleagues can be very stimulating and students will only benefit from it. Online learning cannot offer human interaction. Online learning should be seen as a complement and extension of on-site learning. Not even the best online learning can replace personal contact with a teacher, or the human relationships that develop in a group."
"However, one of the main advantages of online learning in the last three months has been the use of technology by students and teachers. Technology allows us to experiment in pedagogy, democratize the classroom and better engage students," she added.
Schools are also providing extra training to health and safety teams to ensure safety protocols are followed. A GEMS Education spokesperson said: "Over the last three months, thousands of GEMS students have continued to learn and make progress through our schools' remote learning programmes, with excellent results across the board. At the same time, we are preparing for all possible scenarios in terms of education provision come September. As soon as detailed guidance is published, we will work with parents to make sure their children are best-taken care of."
Mixed reaction from parents about reopening
Schools are opening up across the world and the UAE should also implement similar models, says Malaysian expat Adeelatul. "I am quite comfortable sending my children back to school and I am looking forward to it. There are some concerns but I am sure schools and students will adeptly adopt the new normal. People are now accustomed to this new situation. Going back to school is becoming important for children," she said.
Thai expat Isareeya Saipetch is also ready to send her children to school. "I have faith in the sanitisation efforts of the school and I am sure they'll put their best foot forward to cope with the situation and keep students safe. There are certain imminent challenges, but I am sure institutes have efficient plans to implement the safe return of their pupils."
Arijit Nandi, an Indian expat, is sceptical and said the number of Covid-19 cases in the country will determine his readiness to send his child to school. "If the number of Covid-19 cases goes down, then I'll feel comfortable sending my four-year-old to school. But, if we learn of surging cases or a second wave then I am not too sure."
Meanwhile, Pakistani expat Uzma Tabassum is worried about kids going back to school. "Maintaining social distancing and hygiene protocols are easier with older children. But with students in junior school or nurseries, how does one ensure that schools can implement these measures? Children anyway are prone to falling sick. So, the virus does pose a threat to younger ones," she said.
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