All systems are in place for the start of a new school year in the UAE from Sunday, a pandemic-era event governments worldwide are struggling to handle effectively. Health authorities and education regulators have announced detailed safety protocols, and school managements say they are ready and transport providers have modified fleets and schedules to comply with social distancing norms. Education regulators have issued detailed guidelines in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, covering all eventualities – from the time students arrive on the campus to their disbursal.
The Ministry of Education has also spelt out a protocol if a child or two catch the virus. Classes will be shifted temporarily if two children in an institution are tested positive. In case of a surge outside the schools, the protocol lays out four levels of risky scenarios – low, moderate, high and extreme. If positive cases reach 36 per 100,000 people in seven days, schools will be told to shift to distance learning. A large number of parents have opted for distance learning, and this will undoubtedly reduce exposure risk and workload on schools.
Still, recent experiences of several countries tell us that even best safety protocols can fail. The United States, Germany and other parts of Europe have reported outbreaks among students and teaching staff. Therefore, all stakeholders in the UAE, including parents, schools, education regulators and health authorities must be ready for all eventualities. It must be clearly understood that the safety protocol will be tested only when students resume in-class learning from Sunday and complacency of any kind can prove to be disastrous.
Parents have a big responsibility here, and they have to teach young children about their safety and the safety of others. Since the start of the pandemic, Sunday will be the first day in months when children will be away from home and parents for hours. During the lockdown and summer holidays, they remained protected as most of them remained indoors. In other words, many children will be experiencing their first day out in the pandemic era and will be responsible for their safety. It will take days if not weeks before young children fully grasp the safety protocols and develop healthy habits.
The UAE’s response to the pandemic has been satisfactory with mass testing, very low mortality rate and a healthy rate of recoveries. The disease has remained in control even after resumption of government services and business activities. However, the beginning of the academic year is arguably the biggest test of the country’s pandemic response systems.