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Passengers wearing face masks at Dubai airport on Monday 16 March 2020. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai: Many Emiratis studying in the UK have started returning home as the coronavirus pandemic has forced a number of universities there to switch to online classes.

The development also follows Tuesday’s UAE advisory asking Emirati students abroad to immediately return if their university closes. The advice came in a circular by Ministry of Education and National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority.

In the UK, a number of universities have suspended on-campus studies and moved learning online as the country registered around 1,950 COVID-19 cases, with over 70 deaths.

Heads of Emirati societies in universities in the UK said close coordination between themselves, UAE cultural attaches and embassy and the universities had led to the prompt action.

Coming home

Emirati undergraduate Mohammad Eissa, 20, returned to the UAE on Monday from the University of Sheffield in the UK, the same day face-to-face teaching was temporarily suspended at the university, whose website says it “has been notified that one member of staff has tested positive for coronavirus (Covid-19)”.

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Mohammad Eissa Image Credit: Supplied

Eissa, a second-year material sciences and engineering student who heads the Emirati society at his university, said he had received “a message from UAE’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research” to return home in light of studies moving online.

‘Waste no time’

“Once I got the message, I got the approval, the first thing I did was waste no time. I booked the earliest flight [to UAE] as possible. I packed as much as possible – my books and notes – bearing in mind I may not be able to come back anytime soon,” said Eissa.

Initial worries

“In the beginning, everyone [Emirati university students in the UK] was worried, everyone had questions. Even those who initially had planned not to come back, struggled to find daily items as supermarket shelves were empty.”

Some students wanting to return had hesitated as they were concerned, he added, about how the move would impact their studies.

“Personally, I appreciate that everything has moved to online learning, but what is that going to do to my accreditation? Would I be lacking in some skill because we have that practical experience missing in our degree? So this is something I’ve been concerned about. I’ve been in touch with my department, and they are going to organise to make up for it eventually, once everything clears,” Eissa said.

He has already started using live online lectures from his university, which Eissa said are also recorded, and have options for public or private chat. More options and guidance are on the way from the university, he added.

Last out

Eissa said “90 per cent” of Emirati students are planning to, or have, come back. A few exceptions, he added, are those on the threshold of their postgraduate thesis or awaiting their renewed Biometric Residence Permit in the UK.

Eissa said there are over 60 Emirati students at the university, according to information available to him.

Team spirit

“Thanks to teamwork, everyone’s worries have been eased and I can assure you more people have returned home, thanks to that. This is what we’ve been taught and we’re acting as a family, aboard and at home. This has touched me personally and made me love the fact that I’m an Emirati.”

No panic

Another Emirati student, Saoud Abdulla Sharif, who heads the Emirati society at the University of Birmingham, also said most Emirati students have come back home or will soon.

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Saoud Abdullah Sharif Image Credit: Supplied

Sharif added: “No one is panicking. Students are happy to revisit their families sooner than expected. Students are having a banter by asking each other, ‘when was the last time you’re family called you to go home’. But everyone is taking Covid-19 seriously.”

Temporary move

The university is transitioning to online teaching and by March 23 will move to distance education for the remainder of this term, it said on its website.

The university has a campus in Dubai, which is implementing the UAE government directive to all educational establishments in the Emirates to remain closed from March 8 to April 4. The Dubai campus will be providing distance learning in the interim period, its website says.