Abu Dhabi: A flurry of new COVID-19 testing regulations for UAE schoolchildren has had families queuing up at screening facilities across the UAE in the last few days ahead of school reopening on Sunday, August 29. Parents are now urging authorities to increase the number of testing facilities, with many saying that they have had to wait for long periods in order to get their children tested for COVID-19. The rush appears to be the maximum at select few centres offering saliva-based PCR-tests for the young schoolchildren.
Some parents have also urged that PCR tests be organised in the schools itself.
Latest testing requirements
Last week, the National Emergency, Crisis and Disasters Management Authority (NCEMA) had made PCR tests mandatory for all children physically returning to school after the end of the summer break. While children aged 12 years or more have to get PCR tests via nasal swab, students aged between four and 12 years are allowed to provide a saliva sample. The tests have to be conducted within the 96 hours before school entry, which resulted in overcrowding at test centres.
Additionally, children need to be tested every 14 days for the first 30 days of schooling and then take a test every month. On the other hand, children aged at least 12 years and who are not yet fully vaccinated have to undergo PCR tests every week after the first month of schooling.
The requirements apply to all public and private schools, chartered schools, nurseries, day-care centres, universities and training centres.
Who are exempted
Only students enrolled in private schools in Dubai, regulated by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), as well as children aged less than 12 years at private schools in Sharjah regulated by the Sharjah Private Education Authority (Spea), need not undergo PCR tests before attending school in person. Naturally, children enrolled in full-time distance learning are also exempted.
Rush at testing centres
One Abu Dhabi parent who spoke to Gulf News on condition of anonymity said she had waited for two-and-a-half hours to get her five-year-old tested.
“I was less worried about sending my daughter back to school, especially given the strict protocol and regular inspections that are implemented in schools. The saliva testing for young children is also a great idea, but we were informed very late. Then I found out that the first test had to have been done 96 hours before school entry. Since my daughter’s school begins on Tuesday, I will have to get the PCR test done again. This means braving the rush again,” she said.
Another parent said he had taken his son for the saliva-based test at the main licensed saliva testing centre in Abu Dhabi. “I chose to go there because that is where the school told us to go. There were at least 200 people ahead of us in the queue, even though I had made a prior appointment,” he said.
“I truly appreciate the rigorous restrictions, especially since I am sending my child to school for the first time since March 2020. But the testing process should be made easier and conducted in a way that prevents crowding and congestion amid the pandemic,” the father added.
Other families took to social media to raise concerns about the difficulty in last-minute testing, saying that it was making the school-going experience unpleasant for children.
“We don’t mind anything, it is just the timeline of releasing such updates to the public. It is ... unfair ... to [have to] fulfil all the school entry requirements in just two days before school commencement, with two to three hours of waiting,” one Emirati parent tweeted to the UAE Ministry of Education.
Following the rush at the main saliva testing centre in Abu Dhabi city, the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek), which regulates the emirate’s 221 private and charter schools, informed parents on Thursday (August 26) of an updated list of testing centres in the emirate.
“Dear parents, for your convenience and in preparation for your children’s safe return back to schools, students below 12 years and students of determinations can now get a free COVID-19 test at any private or public testing centre. A saliva PCR test is also available at the following locations. Students opting for a saliva PCR test must be fasting for 45 minutes before the sample collection,” the SMS said. A specified link also provided a list of 14 centres, and added that all drive-through PCR testing centres in the emirate operated by Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha) — which are located in Abu Dhabi city and Al Ain — would now offer saliva tests.
Some parents have, however, said that they were unable to avail of free saliva tests at the newly-specified locations.
Given that students’ need to undergo PCR tests every 14 days during the first month of schooling, and then once a month or weekly thereafter, families are urging authorities to organise the PCR tests in schools.
“That way, families can avoid crowding at the testing centres, which is itself known to increase the risk of COVID-19 spread,” one mother said.
Apart from PCR testing requirements, UAE Ministry of Education had announced during the summer that all students aged at least 16 years will have to be fully vaccinated in order to physically attend school this term.
What are the PCR testing regulations?
According to the NCEMA, students enrolled at nurseries, day-care centres, private schools, public schools, higher education, training centres and institutes must present a negative PCR test result, with 96-hour validity, in order to physically attend school from Sunday, August 29.
-all children have to get PCR tests every two weeks for the first 30 days of schooling.
Beyond the first 30 days,
-children younger than 12 years, whether vaccinated or not, have to take a PCR test every month;
-unvaccinated children aged 12 years or more have to take a PCR test every week; -vaccinated children aged 12 years and older have to take a PCR test every month.
These requirements do not apply, as yet, to students enrolled in Dubai’s private schools and students aged less than 12 years at private schools in Sharjah.
PCR testing in Dubai
There was a flurry of activities around several PCR testing centres in Dubai and the Northern Emirates on the eve of schools reopening.
In Dubai, according to the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), PCR testing is not mandatory for students. Therefore, very few students from private schools were seen at these centres. Punit Vasu, CEO of Indian High Group of Schools, told Gulf News: “As per the KHDA guidelines, it is not mandatory for students go get a PCR test done prior to coming to school on Sunday. Therefore, in our communication with parents, we have stated the same. It is mandatory for all teachers, though.”
Rashmi Nandkeoleyar, principal of Delhi Private School, Dubai, reiterated the same rule, saying that according to KHDA guidelines, there was no need for the students to get the test done. So, in the circular we sent out to parents, we have not insisted on a mandatory PCR test.”
Fiona Cottam, principal of Hartland International School, told Gulf News: “While PCR test is not mandatory for all students, only those returning from overseas are opting to get tested.”
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Sharjah PCR testing
In Sharjah, students are required to take the PCR test prior to joining school. Some schools arranged special PCR testing facilities within the school premises. Dr Vandana Marwaha, principal and director of Delhi Private School, Sharjah, said: “In Sharjah it was mandatory for students from the age of 12 onwards to have a negative PCR test prior to joining school. We decided to hold a camp in school and about 600-plus students and 400 teachers took the test a day ago. We are happy we were able to make the PCR testing a hassle-free affair and are eagerly looking forward to welcoming our students back in school on Sunday.”
Drive-in centres work smoothly
Elsewhere, senior secondary students who went to other centres reported a smooth run of the testing centres. Shreya Srinivasan, a grade 12 student of Our Own High School Sharjah, said she went for her PCR test at the Seha Centre in Al Khawaneej, Dubai. “The price of the test was Dh65 and it was a drive-through facility, for which we had taken a prior appointment. So it was really smooth.”
Home PCR test a viable and affordable option
Some teachers and students are also opting for home testing services that are being offered by many health-care providers.