Dubai: What is a typical UAE school day like in the time of COVID-19?
On Sunday, GEMS New Millennium School, Al Khail, was one of the 200-plus private schools in Dubai that reopened after March, when the pandemic forced schools to shut.
It was not a typical first day, though, back at New Millennium, or any other school, owing to the changes introduced to safeguard against coronavirus.
Soon after 7am, the first school buses started rolling in. As the students stepped out, the first visible sign of the ‘new normal’ became evident — masks. Only the squint of the eyes gave away the smiles behind the masks.
“Distance please,” staff reminded the younger pupils as they neatly made their way into the building on a red-carpet welcome. A thermal camera at the entrance automatically screened their temperature as they walked past.
There were plenty of high-fives with peers and teachers, but all done silently in the air to avoid contact. Others just waved at each other, probably holding back the urge to hug after seeing — really seeing — one another for the first time in half a year.
Most of the 150 or so students on Sunday at New Millennium were from pre-KG to Grade 5, as scheduled for that day, and some senior schoolers who have opted for face-to-face classes on all school days. Around 60 per cent of all students have chosen full distance learning for the first term at the school.
Normally, all 1,400-plus students of the Indian-curriculum school would have filled the hallways with chatter on their way to class. But these aren’t normal times — and there were plenty of signs reminding students and staff of that. Every corridor and wall had posters and markings about social distancing and hand-hygiene, with no-touch sanitiser dispensers never too far away.
Inside the classroom, as well as outside, students kept a minimum of 1.5 metres of space to maintain social distancing. Their desks seemed miles apart, compared to the usual two-by-two pairing.
Another new normal was the big screen on the front wall showing the distance learners virtually joining the classes. Teachers kept both groups — online and offline — engaged with questions and classwork.
As the students were young, they didn’t hastily make their way to the canteen for lunch, which the school will keep open for higher grades. Instead, the children enjoyed their lunch, brought from home, at their classroom desk.
Except for the masks, the chemistry lab seemed similar as pre-pandemic times. Each student had their own station, as usual, to do the experiments. Irtiqa Zafar, one of the Grade 11 students there, was enjoying being back in school.
“I missed the learning at school, the interaction with teachers and the aura the school has. I just couldn’t wait to meet my teachers and get started. I chose face-to-face learning because of the routine, the discipline. At home, there can be a lot of distractions, and it’s just generally better to be at school,” she said.
Well, there are no bells at the school — a tune plays for a few seconds to mark the end of each class. As the day’s last ‘bell’ went off, students zipped up their school bags, pushed the chairs in and filed into formation.
The march back to the school buses was equally regimented, keeping enough space between students. Inside the bus too, some seats were left empty for social distancing.
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‘Beating the fear’
As in the morning, school principal Fatima Martin was there to see off the students and teachers.
Reflecting on schooling amid the outbreak, she said: “I’ve stopped calling this the 'new normal', I’m calling it a ‘different normal’ because the situation is dynamic, it’s changing by the day – for the better. Under all of the guidelines, I think Dubai is very well set to beat the fear of the pandemic and that attitude has transfused into every school. I can only see things getting better from here on.”