Abu Dhabi: It has been a little more than a month since students have resumed schooling in what are unprecedented circumstances. For the first time, UAE schoolchildren have had a choice between distance learning and in-class lessons, and while many have chosen to continue learning from home, a fair number of students have also returned to school campuses.
Regardless of the choice, students and educators alike have been faced with challenges, and have come up with the best ways to navigate them.
One of the primary difficulties being cited by schools is the amount of work for educators. According to the Dubai British School, Jumeirah Park, managing teacher workloads remains “a massive challenge”, especially as many teachers are juggling classroom students and distance learners at the same time.
Virtually all — 95 per cent — of the school’s students chose to come to school in person, while a few students opted for distance learning. Principal Brendon Fulton said, “Having to balance in-class teaching with distance learning provisions for the few children who remain at home is demanding on the teaching staff. However, as with the distance learning programme, we were asked to deliver in the third term last year, we continue to gather feedback and make adjustments where necessary to ensure that well-being of staff and students remains a priority.”
Reimagining classroom practice
Fulton added that teachers are also being asked to find new ways of working under the new normal. “With social distancing requirements, normal elements of classroom practice, such as group work, are now having to be reimagined. Teachers are working hard and collaboratively to share and use best practices to ensure that learning remains fun and engaging, without compromising on safety,” he said. This includes having virtual assemblies and other school events online.
Fulton added that students who have returned for face-to-face learning have been “graceful” in following COVID-19 precautions. “They understand the need to wear a mask and socially distance, and have, themselves, become ambassadors for safety in the school. Their independence and responsibility has been truly rewarding to see,” he added.
Trusting teachers with changes
It has not been easy for schools to ensure students have “as powerful and dynamic an educational experience as ever before”, given the pandemic, said Simon Herbert, chief executive officer of GEMS International School — Al Khail. “Creativity is key — schools cannot function in the same way as they have before, so in meeting this ‘new normal’, we have placed trust in teachers to bring best practices to the table and to apply what has been learnt through the pandemic,” he added.
GIS Al Khail students have also been “a powerful force for good”, using their creativity to produce a video before the term started to show what the return to school would be like. “We gained special permission for this from the [Knowledge and Human Development Authority] and it was a big success,” Herbert said.
School leaders stepping in
At Jumeira Baccalaureate School, Dubai, senior and middle leaders have stepped in to support teachers and offer relief during the day, especially at break and lunch times, said principal Richard John Drew. This helps them cope with the new normal structure — mixing classroom and distance teaching. However, schooling under the pandemic has been especially tough for early-years teachers and students, he added.
“Teachers in Early Years spend the whole day with their students and therefore the opportunity for breaks etc is very limited. It was also initially challenging for students, especially those in the Early Years to fully grasp the rules of social distancing. Play-based learning is the norm for our younger students but now they have to social distance. They also can’t access some of the equipment that they would normally use, therefore learning has to be different,” Drew said. Collaborative planning, sharing new best practice “and being honest about what is working” have all helped staff develop “outstanding practice”, he added.
Still offering full programme
“We recently undertook a student survey and were heartened by the response of the students. They are so glad to be back in school, and really respect the hard work the staff are doing to make lessons outstanding but also keeping them safe. We have also been able to continue to develop our curriculum and feel that although we have had to change a great deal, we are still able to offer a full programme including PE, Arts and Languages. It is also very positive to see over 90 per cent of our students back in school,” Drew said.
The apprehension of parents about sending their children into school due to safety concerns was a big challenge to overcome — and rightly so, said Nargish Khambatta, Principal and CEO, GEMS Modern Academy, Dubai. “We undertook an initial consultative session, grade-wise, followed by extensive orientation sessions in August informing parents and students about the safety measures in place, timings, seating arrangements, etc. And we checked with them about their concerns and solicited feedback. In addition, putting together a Response Task Force that works closely with the Senior Leadership Team ensured priority was placed on delivering the highest health and safety standards,” she added.
Return to (new) normal
Khambatta said the anxiety that parents and students had has slowly been replaced with confidence that, if social distancing is followed, school is a safe place. The number of students who changed from full distance learning to blended learning at the school after a month was “heartening”. Also, early morning sports practice, PE, dance, drama, art — all of these have resumed at the school while following all precautions. “It is wonderful to see children enjoying these activities. Also, Grade 12 and IB-2 Exams were conducted on-site with all safety protocols in place, and all this was appreciated by students and parents alike,” Khambatta said.
Working around challenges
Andreas Swoboda, principal of Uptown International School, Dubai, said having staggered breaks in school, and virtual gatherings from home, have both helped manage the challenges of social distancing. “Our biggest challenge — apart from ensuring that our teachers do not burn out, as they are faced with an increased workload — is to consolidate the requirements of social distancing and the need to administer an ‘IB-way’ of teaching and learning in the classroom, which is by nature very collaborative. We have achieved this by using our virtual learning platforms for such collaboration,” he added.
“Another challenge was the lack of movement of students during the day, which originated from the need to stay in their ‘bubbles’. We have introduced dancing breaks and institutionalised campus walks for our student bubbles at different times during the day,” Swoboda explained.
Swoboda said managing the unprecedented and unforeseen challenges of the first physical school term under the pandemic has been possible mostly because of teachers. “Our teachers are the true heroes of our school, now more so than ever. What they are asked to do now is superhuman, and they have answered the call. My greatest respect and gratitude goes out to them,” he added.
Parents have also encountered challenges with their children’s schooling, saying that pickup and drop-off can get challenging, as well as maintaining children’s routines as schools implement a blended learning system. “My five-year-old goes to school every alternate day, so maintaining his bedtime is a challenge. But then on the days when he is home, it is tough also tending to my infant while I facilitate his lessons. At any rate, I know this is the best scenario under the current circumstances,” said a 32-year-old Pakistani homemaker.
Another mother-of-two said she had opted for distance learning for her child in KG2. “It can be a struggle, but I am happy that we have had this option to keep our son home even as he continues to learn,” she said.
Students, on the other hand, said they are just happy to be learning again after a summer break when they stayed mostly at home. “It has been refreshing, as it’s all a new experience. I find that I am spending my time more productively, and am more self-aware. But I miss the social interactions that I used to have before the pandemic,” said Basil Khan, 18, a Grade 12 student from India, at The Cambridge High School, Abu Dhabi.
For Oussama Ghoneim, a Grade 12 student at the same school who has opted for in-class learning, it has proved more beneficial to be in school. “I find it to be more enjoyable and engaging, and I don’t have to worry about WiFi issues. But I would want to see more students in school,” he added.
Adithi Sathiyan, 15, Grade 11 student from India at Al Ain Academy, opted for distance learning.
“I found it quite comfortable to work at home and I had all the resources (books and internet) available at my disposal. And learning at home meant I didn’t have to spend time commuting back and forth from home to school, making me feel more energised to work longer. I could also ask teachers questions through the ‘chat’ function, and having PowerPoints and documents uploaded [made revision easy].
I have been doing distance learning for almost seven months now, so it wasn’t as unsettling to start this first term with online learning once again, especially as the school ensured we were as equipped as possible. And I believe I’m doing well in most of my subjects; I definitely still feel motivated to keep going. Distance learning has, however, increased my desire to return to pre-pandemic school — the thing I miss the most about pre-COVID-19 schooling would definitely be face-to-face contact and being physically present in classrooms.”
Maya Nourse-Grewal, 16, Grade 12 student from the UK at Al Ain Academy, opted for in-class learning. “I really enjoy being able to see my teachers and friends, as over distance learning, the hardest part was missing out on the social aspect of school. These are as important as the academic side, since they allow you to relax and share worries with your peers. So it is really nice to be able to talk with my friends at lunch and break about school or any other topics as we hadn’t seen each other for a long time. I am studying essay-based subjects, so I also find that debating and discussing ideas is really beneficial to understanding concepts.
[I must say thought that the] first day of school felt very unusual [because for the first time,] we had to adhere to social distancing guidelines, wear masks and undergo temperature screening. We also had to take COVID-19 tests before we arrived. But by the end of the first week, I felt comfortable with the ‘new normal’. Now, after a few weeks back at school, it feels comfortable and I am used to the guidelines and different rules we must follow to keep everyone safe.
“The part I miss the most about pre-Covid-19 schooling is being able to sit close with my friends to chat about school and other topics, but I understand [social distancing] is the most important thing to follow to ensure everyone is safe at school.