Back in school at the Gems New Millennium School Al Khail. Image Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi/Dubai: After six long months, thousands of schoolchildren returned to school campuses across the UAE on Sunday for the first day of the new term. Donning face masks and maintaining adequate distancing from one another, they settled happily into the ‘new normal’.

Meanwhile, numerous others logged on to online portals, either because they had been assigned to distance learning during their school’s staggered orientation weeks or because their parents had opted to continue distance learning.

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Smooth start

It was, overall, a smooth start to the term after the summer break for more than a million students in the country, as well as a gentle easing into the ‘new normal’ of schooling amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mohammad Bin Zayed’s message

For many schools, including those offering British, American, IB and the UAE Ministry of Education curriculum it was the start of the 2020-2021 academic year.

In a tweet, His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, wished students a safe return to schools.

“We hope this new academic year will be defined by great achievements. Our education system proved to be dynamic and resilient last year, and we are confident it will go from strength to strength. The safety and wellbeing of students remains our top priority,” Shaikh Mohammad tweeted.

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School preparations

Schools had earlier announced pulling out all the stops to ensure student and staff safety. After announcements by educational authorities in June approving the return to in-class learning, institutions got down to the brass tacks to plan school schedules, install thermal scanners and design classrooms to allow for physical distancing.

West Yas Academy being sterilised in preparation for the next school day

Distance learning

Institutions also kept abreast of all new regulations, including allowances announced in August that allowed families to opt for distance learning over the term.

In Abu Dhabi, which boasts of 449 schools this academic year, most schools institutions implemented a staggered start to the term in line with directives by the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek). Adek had earlier said that the priority for on-campus learning is for kindergarten and primary school students.

Dr Joseph Kotarski

“On our first day of school, we are planning to welcome roughly 280 students from KG1 through Grade 5 in the first group over two days. We will then welcome another 280 students from KG1-G5 mid-week. Grades 6-11 will welcome back roughly over 425 students, who will have 100 per cent online lessons where they access a live digital timetable and attend four one-hour lessons per day, covering their normal subjects as if they were physically in school,” explained Dr Joseph Kotarski, principal and CEO at West Yas Academy, an Aldar Education school. The operator is one of the leading education providers in the emirate.

Students excited to return

Natalie Bolas

Students returning to school premises appeared delighted to be back.

I felt like it would be a really great opportunity to come back into the class. I think I can learn more stuff than I did before, and it’s been really positive,” said Natalie Bolas, a Grade 5 student from Egypt at GEMS Cambridge International School in Abu Dhabi.

Primary students attending their classes and Grade 5 students at GEMS Cambridge International School in Abu Dhabi carefully cross a marked corridor on the campus.

“I have online learning tomorrow, but if we could come to school every day, I would,” she added.

Falah Al Mansoori

“I am excited to come to school because I like art,” said Falah Al Mansoori, an Emirati Grade 5 student at West Yas Academy.

Hind Al Ameri, another Grade 5 student at the school, said she was excited to learn division.

“I don’t [much like] wearing a mask, but I am happy that it keeps me safe. I also like having my own table because it gives me more space,” she added.

Hind Al Ameri

Vignesh Nair, a Grade 11 student at GEMS New Millennium School, Al Khail, said that he felt face-to-face learning would be less distracting that learning from home.

“Having your teachers in front of you is very motivating, and you also get to meet your friends,” he said.

Parents cautious

Other families said they would see how the return to school would play out in the first few weeks.

“The children of course would love to go back, but my youngest daughter, aged six years, is asthmatic. I won’t be sending her, and her eight-year-old sister, back to school just yet. My son, on the other hand, is in Grade 8, so when his classes resume on campus, I wouldn’t mind sending him back,” send a British mother-of-four in the capital.

The preference for distance learning was also clear at some schools in Abu Dhabi, where many parents prefer to have children resume schooling at home.

At The Model School, for instance, Dr V.V. Abdulkader, principal, said only 40 of 5,100 enrolled children had chosen on-campus learning.

“As part of our staggered start, we were expecting only 18 students to come in on Sunday. Only 11 actually attended. But we will continue to keep the school open, with all safety measures in place,” he added.

Families reassured by stringent safety

Regardless of attendance at school, there was no doubt that families have been waiting for children to resume learning, reassured by stringent safety measures.

For instance, in recent weeks, more than 56,000 staff at all 449 schools and 25 universities in Abu Dhabi emirate have been screened for COVID-19. Adek has also mandated screenings every 14 days for bus supervisors and attendants.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education announced in recent updates that prayer rooms at schools would be reserved only for students, and that staff have to pray in their own offices. Inspectors have also toured schools in Dubai to ensure compliance with safety.

Welcome, comfort, support and re-engage

Simon Herbert

GEMS Education, one of the country’s largest school operators, reported that 120,000 students have enrolled across 43 schools in the UAE, including about 15,000 new joiners. To support learning, the provider has employed 800 new teachers.

“We are so excited about our students’ return to school. This year has seen so many challenges and our students have been away from school for such a long time. Therefore, our staff are ready to welcome, comfort, support and re-engage. This year, more than any year before, our focus is on the well-being of our whole community. We are delighted that so many children have chosen to return to our campus, but we do not forget those who have opted for remote learning. We are ready for both and remain flexible, agile and resilient,” said Simon Herbert, Head of School/CEO at GEMS International School — Al Khail.

‘Growing together’

Nav Iqbal

“At GEMS Metropole we always put our community first. The safety of our community is a key priority and we will accept nothing less than excellence in this. Our teams have ensured students return to a safe and inclusive school that will put a smile on every child’s face. We look forward to welcoming our children and seeing them back in school, learning, having fun and growing together,” said Nav Iqbal, Principal/CEO, GEMS Metropole School — Motor City.

At Raha International School in Abu Dhabi, primary school students are attending a two-week orientation, whereas secondary students are all enrolled in distance learning for a month.

Kathryn Simms

“We are following all directives as set forth by Adek, and have employed a Compliance Officer to assist us in getting ready for the safe return of our students and staff. We have put measures in place to ensure social distancing practices are adhered to throughout the school. [For instance], classrooms have had ‘collaborative’ furniture removed and some resources have also been removed to avoid cross-contamination and to allow for distancing. Collaboration still remains one area of focus in our curriculum, but this will be done either at while maintaining social distancing or through our online platforms,” said Kathryn Simms, vice principal at the schools’ Gardens Campus.