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Abu Dhabi: All children aged 16 years or more who wish to return to school in person from September onwards must be fully vaccinated, education authorities announced on Monday.

The UAE Ministry of Education (MoE), and Abu Dhabi’s education sector regulator - the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek) – announced the requirement as part of new measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools. It means that students aged at least 16 years must have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine at least 28 days before returning to schools for in-class learning, unless they have an official vaccination exemption.

The new regulation also applies to school staff. In Abu Dhabi, they come into effect on August 20, in line with new vaccination-related restrictions imposed by the Abu Dhabi Emergency, Crisis and Disasters Management Authority for the COVID-19 Pandemic.

“Vaccination is a mandatory requirement for entering educational facilities for those aged 16 years and above,” the MoE announced on its social media platforms. This includes all eligible groups of people, including teaching staff, administrative staff, support services, and even parents.

Available vaccines

Five different COVID-19 vaccines are approved in the UAE for adults, with the Pfizer vaccine also approved for children aged at least 12 years old and the Sinopharm vaccine approved for vaccinating children at least three years old. Both Sinopharm and Pfizer vaccines are widely available at health centres and clinics across the country.

In-class learning

Earlier this year, educational authorities in the country – the MoE, Adek and the Sharjah Private Education Authority (SPEA) – had announced that schools would once again welcome children into school premises in September, but that parents would still have the option to choose full-time distance learning for their wards.

Abu Dhabi in-school measures

In Abu Dhabi, the updated school-based measures also include additional elements, including open play areas, fully functioning cafeterias and regular PE classes. They apply to 222 private and chartered schools in the emirate and include the following:

- When classes resume, children will be grouped in ‘macrobubbles’ – bigger groups than bubbles – in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff. Organising macrobubbles will continue to reduce group-specific shifts to distance learning, which is the regulatory protocol when a COVID-19 case is detected within a macrobubble.

- Class bubble sizes for younger students enrolled from kindergarten up to Grade 2, who do not practise social distancing, will be increased from ten to 16 students per bubble.

- Communal areas vital to interaction and socialisation will reopen, including play areas for younger students.

- Cooking will be permitted in school premises, as long as food is served by designated staff members, and as per Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority regulations, which includes serving food in individual portions.

- Students will resume Physical Education (P.E.) classes and sport, including swimming, with special arrangements and adaptations based on risk assessments.

- Schools must sanitise recreational areas and sports equipment between uses by groups.

- Extracurricular activities will also resume, provided schools complete a risk assessment and implement safe operation policies, including physical distancing and mask-wearing.

- The rental of school sports facilities to outside parties will remain suspended.

- Physical distancing in school premises will be scaled down to one metre within classrooms and throughout school grounds, enabling increased classroom capacities. This will allow the maximum number of students to get as much face-to-face contact with their teachers and peers, which is important for their intellectual, physical, social-emotional development and wellbeing.

Special cases

- Students who will turn 16 years old during the course of the school year, must get the first dose of a UAE-approved vaccine within four weeks of their birthday. This must be reflected on Alhosn app and parents must ensure that these students complete their full vaccination journey in a timely fashion.

- Special arrangements will be made for students aged 16 years or more who have not been vaccinated, to sit critical exams in school.

- Students aged 16 years or more, or educators, who are new to the emirate will be given a grace period to complete their vaccination journey, and should reach out to their schools for further details.

- Distance learning will remain an option for children with chronic illnesses, for those aged 16 and above who are not vaccinated, and for those who wish to continue learning online if the model is offered by their school.

Constant policy reviews

“Building on our experience over the past year, and in close coordination with health authorities, educators and parents, we are confident the new academic year will get off to a great and safe start with these updated policies in place. Our priority is to ensure as many students get the chance to enjoy quality face-to-face learning, which is vital for their intellectual, physical and social-emotional development and wellbeing. We will constantly review the policies to ensure all possible measures are in place to keep our educators, students and communities safe,” said Sara Musallam, Adek chairman.

“The policies mean all pupils aged 16 and above, as well as staff and all visitors, must be fully vaccinated with a UAE-approved vaccine to access the school premises, whether within or outside school hours. The vaccinations must be verified on the Alhosn app prior to returning to school at the start of the academic year,” said Amer Al Hammadi, Adek undersecretary.

Students and school staff with vaccination exemptions will be able to enter school premises as well, as long as the vaccination exemption is verified on the Alhosn app, or through an official letter from an Abu Dhabi Department of Health-authorised vaccination provider.

As part of the efforts to support children’s vaccination, Adek is also collaborating with Abu Dhabi’s health authorities. A pop-up vaccination centre is currently offering Pfizer vaccine doses to children aged at least 12 years old at Yas Mall until August 7, and it will once again vaccinate children between August 24 and 28.

Meanwhile, students can also get the COVID-19 vaccine at any vaccination centre in Abu Dhabi.