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A family checks items at a Back to School promotion section at a hypermarket in Dubai. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

  • Schools are reopening after six months.
  • A host of safety protocols are in place to keep children safe.
  • Parents retain the option of choosing between remote learning, physical attendance or a combination of both.
  • No fee reductions are allowed. Schools are offering relief on a case-by-case basis.
  • Bus fees will have to be paid unless the student opts for remote learning for the entire term.

Dubai, Abu Dhabi: After six long months, over a million students in the UAE will march back to class on August 30, the first day of the new school term.

Since schools closed in March because of the COVID-19 outbreak, this is the first time classrooms will come back alive with students and roads will get busy with school buses again.

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But there will be massive changes in the way school looks and feels, as strict safety measures against the spread of the coronavirus are evident everywhere: from the morning school run, campus entry and classroom norms to lunch breaks, physical education classes and the trip back home.

UAE officials and schools have left no stone unturned in prioritising the health and safety of the school community above all other considerations.

His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, recently said: “We look forward to a safe start and in accordance with the best safety standards for more than a million students within the education system in the Emirates. The UAE is well aware of the importance of smart learning as it invested earlier in the digital infrastructure. Distance learning will be integral part of the educational system ... This is the future.”

His remarks came this week as he reviewed preparations for the new school year 2020-2021 and the various precautionary measures that will be implemented by schools amid the pandemic. “It is a joint responsibility between school and home to ensure a safe and secure educational environment,” Sheikh Mohammed said.

Parents, students and teachers have been glued to screens for distance studies and work from home — but also to keep up with the series of announcements on how will school life be in the wake of the health crisis.

Gulf News has compiled a comprehensive guide on what everyone in the UAE should know before going back to school this term. The latest available information has been taken from guidelines published by Abu Dhabi’s Adek (Department of Education and Knowledge); the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in Dubai; and the Sharjah Private Education Authority (SPEA).

What do I tell children before school begins?

Speak to children about COVID-19: Let them know it is natural to feel anxious or nervous about returning to school. Have an open conversation, and reassure them about safety measures in place. Also be honest about the changes that they will encounter, including the need to wear masks, inability to be close to their friends and teachers, and their role in keeping themselves safe with social distancing and regular handwashing and hygiene measures. Also highlight the positive aspects about the return to school, such as being able to meet friends and learning new things.

If I am travelling, when should I return to the UAE in order to ensure my children can attend school from the start of the term?

Families must have been present in the UAE at least 14 days before the school reopening date to comply with any health and travel requirements set by the government.

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Parents visit schools in Sharjah to complete formalities before they reopen on Sunday. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Additionally, in Sharjah, travel declaration forms will be required for all those who travel (in the last 14 days). These must be submitted to the school before travel occurring and re-confirmed before joining school. Parents in Sharjah must also download the Al Hosn App to ensure traceability in the event of infection.

Do my children have to get tested for COVID-19 before the start of the term?

Parents in Abu Dhabi must arrange for children above the age of 12 to undergo the COVID-19 PCR test before the start of the new academic year, and share the report with their school.

Exemption: Students of determination in Abu Dhabi need not undergo COVID-19 PCR tests.

In Sharjah too, all children aged 12 and above, as well as all school staff, must test negative for COVID-19 before physically rejoining school. Parents will be notified through their school about their children’s COVID-19 test location, date and time.

In Dubai, a COVID-19 PCR test is not required for students. However, those who show symptoms of COVID-19 are required to take the PCR. Meanwhile, all school staff members must take a COVID-19 PCR test before the reopening of the school. Staff who have undergone a COVID-19 test in Dubai recently and have a copy of the results will not be mandated to re-take the test.

Do children have to attend school this academic year?

Yes, all students should be enrolled in school. However, they can choose to continue 100 per cent distance learning for the first term. Schools will also adopt models that incorporate some level of distance learning on a regular basis.

Homeschooling caution: Families who choose to homeschool may run the risk that children may have to repeat the grade once they get back into the system.

How will schools help my child if he or she has faced loss during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Inform about loss: Parents in Abu Dhabi inform must the school if a child has undergone bereavement or loss due to the pandemic.

Counselling: Schools have also been advised to address the effects of the pandemic through counselling, including hiring additional trained staff if required.

What are the different reopening models that schools can adopt?

In Abu Dhabi, the models are

1. Full: Children will attend a regular full school day, every day.

2. Half-day: Children will attend half of a regular school day, every day.

3. Alternating days: Children will receive face-to-face learning at school on alternate days.

4. Alternating weeks: Children will receive face-to-face learning for two weeks on the school premises, and distance learning for the remaining two school weeks, every month.

5. Hybrid: Children will attend school following a combination of the other four systems.

6. Full distance learning for those who request it

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A family buying school uniforms at a store in Sharjah. Schools will be flexible during the first two weeks after physical reopening and will accommodate for changes. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

First two weeks to decide: Parents have to commit for the full term to the method that they have chosen, whether distance learning or the form of in-class learning adopted by the school. Schools will be flexible during the first two weeks after physical reopening and will accommodate for changes.

In Dubai, the options include:

Being open to all students all the time

Continuing to do distance learning part-time (or full time for those who request it)

Scheduling lessons in staggered ‘shifts’

Meanwhile in Sharjah, schools will follow three broad study modes:

Full distance learning for those who request it

Gradually invite students to the school building until they reach the target capacity for their reopening

All schools must allocate some time for distance learning every day to compensate for a shorter school day

Note: In Sharjah, all private schools will only have distance learning for the first two weeks of the new term

Will all children return to in-class learning from August 30?

In Abu Dhabi, schools will initially reopen for KG1/FS2 to Grade 5/Year 6, while the rest of the grades continue distance learning for 4 weeks. An assessment will be done by the relevant authorities to allow the reopening for the rest of the grades.

Do I have to pay the full school fee if my children go to school for only half the day or on alternate days/weeks, if I opt for full distance learning?

Full payment: Full tuition fee will apply to students, regardless of the mode of attendance and reopening model followed by the school.

Individual support: Parents facing financial constraints have been advised to reach out to schools for support.

Financial considerations: Schools have also been advised to find financial resources and develop financial aid schemes. These can include fee discounts, deferrals of payments, monthly instalments for term fees, etc.

Bus fees: Schools will not be able to reduce bus fees despite the possible reduction in the number of days attended physically in school due to the capacity utilisation reduction of buses (50 per cent of capacity). However, students opting for full distance learning for term one will not have to pay bus fees for this period.

Safety and hygiene

What special preparation will schools undertake?

COVID-19 task force: Schools have to set up a task force to conduct risk assessments before reopening, clean and disinfect the premises, map out transition areas, place signs and demarcate areas, and verify all required staff and students undergo COVID-19 testing.

Quarantine space: Schools will also establish isolation rooms to house children who display symptoms.

Will my school close in case of a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case?

Flexible re-closure: The Adek has also instructed schools on partial or full re-closures in case people contract COVID-19 after school resumes.

Guidelines in Sharjah say in case two or more cases are confirmed, this could mean suspension of normal classes and the beginning of distance learning for all students.

Additionally, in Dubai, in cases of emergencies, such as having unstable cases among staff, students or visitors, the school should immediately contact 999 or 997. In cases of COVID-19 emergency, the school should follow their endorsed guidelines for emergencies by the school’s qualified nurse or doctor while wearing adequate personal protection equipment.

Will the school inform me if my child is exposed to a person with COVID-19?

Mandated to inform: Schools are mandated to inform parents in case their child has been exposed to a patient of COVID-19 while at school.

How often will schools be disinfected and cleaned?

Before the reopening, a total sanitisation will take place at the school.

Every day, schools will carry out a general cleaning and disinfection cycle. High-contact surfaces such as light switches, handrails, doorknobs, toilet seats, etc will be cleaned and disinfected every hour. Toilets will be cleaned and disinfected every hour.

Dubai schools have also been recommended that frequently touched areas and surfaces should be disinfected after every use to ensure the highest efficacy of disinfectant action.

A thorough cleaning and sanitisation of the school will be conducted at the end of each week in Sharjah additionally.

Will schools provide for regular sanitisation?

In schools: Schools have been mandated to provide hand washing or hand sanitising stations in key locations around the school premises and on the school bus. All classrooms will have sanitising wipes, hand sanitiser and covered bins to maintain proper hygiene.

School buses must also have hand sanitiser dispensers at the entrance, and bus monitors should be provided with sanitising wipes and a waste bin.

Provide sanitisers: If children know how to safely use sanitisers, parents have been advised to provide them with a 70 to 80 per cent alcohol-based sanitiser that they can carry with them.

Does my child have to wear a face mask when going to school?

Age stipulation: Children who are older than 6 years will have to wear a mask. This means that KG1 and KG2 students do not have to wear a mask. Schools will also have to ensure children are wearing masks correctly, and provide training if required.

Face shields: If a child is unable to wear a mask, he or she may be allowed to wear a face shield if supported by a medical certificate. Students of Determination with hearing impairments may use transparent masks.

Additional masks: In Abu Dhabi, parents must provide children older than 6 years with two disposable masks every day. Schools also have to maintain a supply of masks for students who may not have them or may have displaced or damaged their masks.

Cloth masks: Homemade cloth masks can be used by children.

During pickup and drop-off: All authorised personnel entering the school premises must be wearing a mask, including parents during school pickup and drop-off.

During meals: Children will be allowed to take their masks off during mealtimes, and they will have to maintain strict social distancing at these times.

Do my children have to wear gloves when going to school?

Gloves are not recommended as they are less effective than handwashing in controlling the spread of COVID-19. However, they may be worn.

How and when will handwashing be encouraged?

Handwashing stations: These should be set up in key locations around the school, such as near access points, playgrounds, entrances to school buildings, in the kitchen, etc. They must be equipped with liquid soap, disposable paper towels, and posters with effective handwashing and drying instructions. Air dryers should not be used because these can circulate air in concentrated spaces. There should also be markings on the floor to allow for social distancing between people queuing up.

When to wash: Schools must encourage students to wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds when their hands are visibly soiled, before mealtimes, after using the washroom, after touching high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, handrails, etc, and after coughing or sneezing.

If not possible: In case handwashing is not possible, students can sanitise their hands using sanitisers and then wash their hands later.

Supervision: Younger children must be supervised when washing hands or using sanitisers, along with children with special needs.

What are the social distancing provisions in schools?

Students, staff and visitors will be expected to stay at least 1.5 metres apart at all times.

Classroom splits: It is likely that classes will be split into two or more groups to accommodate for social distancing requirements. To minimise exposure to others, children will remain in the same group until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

New teaching areas: Some schools may convert non-teaching areas such as gymnasiums and libraries into classrooms.

Fixed seats: Classrooms will be configured to maintain a 1.5-metre distance between children, and children will be assigned fixed seats for the semester.

Learning bubbles: Younger children who find it difficult to maintain social distancing in KG and early primary grades may be grouped into “bubbles of up to 10 individuals”. A bubble is a group of students and staff members who spend the entire day together and do not interact with other students and staff.

Student queuing: Students will queue outside the gate to enter, maintaining a 1.5 metre distance from other families or students. School are allowed to stagger entry and exit times for students to avoid large crowds.

Pick up and Drop off: Only one parent will be allowed to remain in the designated waiting area to pick up or drop off a child for a maximum of 10 minutes. During this period, they will be required to maintain a minimum 1.5-metre or 2m distance from other people.

Demarcation: Areas where queuing is common, and small spaces like bathrooms, must be demarcated with standing intervals.

How will schools limit exposure of children to too many people?

Authorised personnel: Only authorised personnel who meet health requirements are allowed to enter school premises. These include enrolled students, school staff, and contract staff like security guards, janitorial staff, canteen staff, and other people for maintenance.

Unauthorised personnel: Under the new standards, many people who were earlier allowed to enter school premises will be considered unauthorised. These include parents, guardians, unenrolled siblings of students, and other personnel whose tasks can be carried out without entry.

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Staff in Dubai schools will be discouraged from exiting the school during the day, but if they do for emergency purposes, they are requested not to return to the premises unless they have fully sanitised and changed their clothes upon return. They will also undergo thermal screening before entry.

No parents on premises: Parents will not be allowed on the school premises, unless they are supporting a Student of Determination. Exceptions can be made to allow one parent to accompany a KG or early Cycle 1 student, if needed, or by appointments.

However, in Abu Dhabi, the parent will need to provide a negative COVID-19 test result with a 72-hour validity. Adek has said this is subject to change as the situation develops, and schools will notify parents about updates.

Learning bubbles: Younger children who find it difficult to maintain social distancing in KG and early primary grades may be grouped into “bubbles of up to 10 individuals”. A bubble is a group of students and staff members who spend the entire day together and do not interact with other students and staff.

Bus groups: Children who use school buses will also be part of a fixed “bus group” so that their exposure to other children is minimised.

What symptoms will prevent entry of authorised personnel?

People will not be allowed to enter school premises if they show the following symptoms: fever (temperature of 37.5C or higher), cough, bodyache, fatigue, shortness of breath, sore threat, running nose, diarrhoea, nausea, headache, loss of smell or taste.

Parents who note these symptoms in their children are encouraged to keep them home until they are resolved.

How will entry and exit be made safe?

One-way access: All access points will be converted into either entry or exit at a certain time. Schools are also recommended to use as many access points as possible to prevent crowding.

Temperature screenings: Non-contact temperature screenings will take place of all people before entering the school. Thermal scanners are recommended to maximise flow.

Demarcation: Areas where queuing is common, and small spaces like bathrooms, must be demarcated with standing intervals.

Only one parent: Only one parent or guardian can accompany a child during pickup or drop-off and they must be wearing a mask.

Staggered entry: Schools may stagger entry and exit times for students to avoid large queues and crowding. These times will be communicated to parents by each school.

How will bus transport be made safe?

Reduced capacity: Buses will operate at 50 per cent of their capacity, and children will be required to maintain distance while on the bus.

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School buses of undergoing sanitisation as per all safety protocols before the first day of the new academic year on August 30 in the UAE. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

Assigned seats: Children will be assigned seats on the bus for the entire semester.

Temperature checks before boarding: Temperatures will be checked before boarding the bus, and children with elevated body temperature will not be allowed in.

Bus groups: Children in Abu Dhabi who use school buses will additionally also be part of a fixed “bus group” so that their exposure to other children is minimised.

Dubai and Sharjah guidelines says if a child begins to show symptoms of COVID-19 while taking the bus, the child is considered a probable COVID-19 case.

The immediate measure is to ensure the child is seated 2 metres away from the rest of the children. The bus attendant should immediately inform the health and safety in-charge in the school who should immediately communicate with school administration and parents/guardians.

If the trip was for drop off at home, the child should be dropped off first. If the trip was for drop off at the school, the child should be isolated and sent home. The child should not return to school until the PCR result is obtained.

If the result is negative, the child should not return to school until they are symptom-free. If the result is positive, the traced contacts of the child, including staff, and other riders on the bus are considered close contacts.

Private transport recommended: The Adek has also encouraged parents to transport children to and from school as much as possible in order to ease the pressure on the school transport system.

What will be done if my child falls sick?

Isolation rooms: In case a child falls sick at school, he or she will immediately be moved to the designated Isolation Room, where they will be monitored by a school nurse.

Parents pickup: Parents will be contacted immediately to pick up sick children from school.

No medicines given: In Abu Dhabi, schools will not administer any medicines to your child. Instead, the school will inform you about the nearest hospital and COVID-19 testing centre. If a child tests positive for COVID-19, parents must inform the school so that they can take measures to secure the health of other students and staff who may have been exposed to the virus. Information about a child will not be shared with anyone other than the relevant government authorities.

Negative cases

Dubai and Sharjah guidelines say the patient should not return to school until the PCR result is obtained. If the result is negative and there is a clinical assessment of a probable COVID-19 case, the patient should complete a 14-day quarantine. If the result is negative and there is no clinical assessment for a probable case, the child can resume schooling so long as they are symptom-free.

Positive cases

If the result is positive, the traced contacts of the patient, including teachers along with the classmates of a student, or colleagues are all considered close contacts (Anyone who spent more than 15 minutes in a proximity of 2 metres with the positive case, from the day of symptoms onset, or the day of the positive PCR test). They should all commence the 14-day quarantine counted PCR from the day of the positive test, or from the day of the onset of symptoms if ascertained by the clinician.

How will breaks be organised in school?

Social distancing: Students will receive regular breaks during the day. However, these breaks will likely be very different from what they experienced in pre-COVID times: students will have to maintain a 1.5m to 2m distance between themselves and their friends.

No access to playground equipment: For the initial period after reopening, playground equipment like swings and slides will be off-limits to reduce chances of cross-contamination.

Masks off during lunch: Children will be allowed to take off their masks to have lunch under supervision.

Will schools provide meals for students?

No cooking: Schools will not be allowed to cook on the premises.

Provide food from home: Officials have advised parents to provide meals for children from home as much as possible. Schools are allowed to provide certain pre-packaged items.

In Dubai, the school can provide catering services provided it is based on pre-packaged food, while following Dubai Municipality guidelines related to catering services. Staff must also bring in their own food and drink. Teachers should supervise to ensure that children do not share food. Face shields are encouraged during meal breaks when masks need to be temporarily removed

If the school hosts a cafe, Dubai Municipality’s guidelines for cafés and restaurants should be followed especially regarding capacity restrictions, physical distancing, the use of disposable items, and hygiene across the venue and staff.

What about PE and sports?

Sport events (and any mass gatherings) have been suspended, as have PE (Physical Education) classes in Abu Dhabi (and access to playground equipment for the initial period after reopening).

However, in Dubai, PE classes will continue. Swimming pools will be closed for the time being.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the guidelines are in Sharjah.

How will learning change in the COVID-19 era?

New lessons: Schools will offer sessions for children on a range of especially relevant topics, including cyber safety, dealing with loss and/or bereavement, dealing with anxiety etc, in order to support them in navigating these challenging times.

Focus on core learning face-to-face: During face-to-face hours of instruction at school, Adek has recommended that schools prioritise core subjects like Arabic, Islamic Studies, English and Mathematics. Schools will focus on core subjects during the next phase and integrate all other non-core subjects into numeracy and literacy learning as much as possible. Non-core subjects can be offered in distance learning mode to support students’ emotional well-being.

Bridging gaps: Schools have also been asked to carry out student learning evaluations to identify areas where children need additional support to overcome any learning loss experienced during school closure and distance learning.

Special needs integrations: For children with special needs, schools are mandated to develop Individual Education Plans and a risk assessment for him/her following consultation with parents.

Exposure to COVID-19

What should I do if my child contracts COVID-19?

Inform the school: If a child tests positive for COVID-19, parents are mandated to inform the school so that they can take measures to secure the health of the other students and staff who may have been exposed to the virus.

Will the school inform me if my child is exposed to a person with COVID-19?

Mandated to inform: Schools are mandated to inform parents in case their child has been exposed to a patient of COVID-19 while at school.

Install the app: Parents have been recommended to install the Al Hosn app on any phones their children use. This will help authorities trace contacts in case of an incident.

What information should I provide to schools before the start of the term?

Updated contact information

Updated medical records for students

Special arrangements, if required

Experience with bereavement or loss during the pandemic

COVID-19 test results

In turn, schools have been instructed to stay in close contact with parents after reopening. This may mean weekly newsletters, text-message updates or emails. However, all meetings and discussions with staff and administration will have to be done remotely.

What should I do before sending my child to school every day?

Check for symptoms: Parents must ensure that their children do not have a fever or any symptoms such as cough, breathing difficulty or body aches on a daily basis.

Make sure the app is working: Parents must ensure that the Al Hosn app is installed and functioning on their phones and that of their schoolgoing children.

Provide additional masks: Parents in Abu Dhabi must provide children older than 6 years with two disposable masks everyday.

Provide a sanitiser: For children who know to use them, parents should provide a 70 to 80 per cent alcohol-based hand sanitiser.

What should I do outside school to keep my child safe?

Adek has also requested parents to minimise exposure outside school by following certain key measures:

Stay away from crowded places and large gatherings.

Maintain social distancing at all times.

Wear a mask.

Follow safety measures during play dates and extra-curricular activities.

If your child experiences COVID-19 symptoms such as cough, fever or breathlessness, do not send them to school, and seek immediate medical care.

Teach children to maintain a 1.5-metre safe distance from others, to cover their coughs and sneezes, and to wash hands with soap multiple times a day for 20 seconds at a time.

How can I report any concerns about safety at school?

Parents who are dissatisfied with school arrangements or adherence to safety standards can contact the Adek on its dedicated hotline: 800 ADEK.