Private schools are preparing to reopen in September, subject to permissions Image Credit: File picture for illustrative purpose only

Dubai: Even as they await a directive from the authorities, UAE private schools said they are ready to reopen in September and are planning various operational systems to ensure the safety and wellbeing of students amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Addressing a virtual media roundtable on Thursday, a group of main private school operators said they are hopeful that the regulators would support their plan to ensure totality of education and overcome the financial challenges faced by the educational sector.

However, no government order has been issued to them as yet to reopen the schools in September.

The meeting was organised by key members of the Education Business Group, which represents over 100 private school operators in Dubai,

Speaking at the meet to address the challenges faced by private schools during the pandemic, the operators also urged the government to offer them financial support to sustain the high standards of education.

The schools said they are looking at different shift systems and blended learning plans while the ultimate decision to send the children back to school would remain with the authorities and parents. They said they would take strict measures to protect the health and safety and mental and physical wellbeing of the school community, especially students.

“All of us operators, we are on the same page irrespective of the curriculum we offer, irrespective of the demographics at our schools and the locations across the emirates, I think unequivocally, every one of us is committed to health and safety, irrespective of the fees that we charge and the demographics,” said Amit Kothari, executive director, Interstar Advisory Services,

The speakers said it is important for schools to also make sure that around 50,000 jobs in the private education sector remain unaffected.

The school heads said they are learning from school reopenings in Hong Kong, Singapore and some Scandinavian and European countries.

“The more we learn from the international situation, the better,” said Alan Williamson, CEO, Taaleem.

Blended learning

He said the UAE schools are looking at broad parameters of safety measures as some schools offering Indian curriculum have more than 10,000 students while others have lesser number of students.

“Each school may have to find a different way to ensure safety parameters,” he said.

The need for social distancing is expected to reduce the number of students in each classroom.

The blended learning approach allows different groups of students to take turns to go to the campuses and then attend digital learning classes at home on certain number of days. Some schools are likely to opt for splitting the students to different shifts as well.

Risk assessment and parental concerns

The GEMS Education Group has created a risk assessment document while other groups like Taaleem are following suit. They plan to share their concerns with the regulators to chalk out the future course of action.

According to the operators, many parents want to send their children back to school in September.

“We are missing the totality of the curriculum and parents understand the social aspect of schooling,” said Williamson.

However, Sir Christopher Stone, global chief education officer, GEMS Education, said parents will make the decision on sending their children back to school based on how well they trust the school group on the implementation of social distancing and other safety measures like hand-washing.

He pointed out that it would be practically difficult to ensure primary school students follow safety protocols.

While the schools are committed to continue to provide high quality education for the students, whether on the school campus, online distance learning or blended learning, Kalthoom Ali Salem, executive committee member of the Education Business Group, said non-payment of fees by students, provision of discounts and uncertainties regarding new enrolments and variable operational costs are putting tremendous pressure on schools which can affect operational continuity.

Ajay Mankani, director, Fortes, Amol Vaidya, director of operations, Global Indian School, Poonam Bhojani, CEO, Innoventures Education, David Cook, headmaster, Repton School and Tony Elzoghbi, board member Kent College also took part in the roundtable.

Financial support sought

The private schools sought government support on the following heads to overcome their operational challenges during the pandemic.

• Creation of an education sector liquidity fund to provide non-collateral interest-free loans

• Grants to cover the expected loss of fee revenue collection

• Rental breaks from March to August 2020

• Option to place unutilised staff on unpaid leave until the reopening of schools