Students first day of mask
Students in an Abu Dhabi are excited to attend classes without mask nearly two years after COVID-19 restrictions were introduced in 2020.

Abu Dhabi: The smiles of a million schoolchildren were clearly visible this morning as the UAE scrapped its facemask rule in schools and nurseries across the country.

The National Emergency, Crisis and Disasters Management Authority (NCEMA) had announced the removal of the requirement on Monday, allowing residents to remain mask-free in all indoor and outdoor spaces, with the exception of mosques, health facilities, and public transport.

Students can therefore attend all classes — whether indoors or outdoors — without having to don the facemasks they have worn every day since late 2020, when schools resumed in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Coupled with the elimination of social distancing and PCR testing requirements earlier this year, schooling in the UAE has once again returned to its pre-pandemic normal.

Students without mask
Students arrive without mask in the schools on the first day after the UAE authorities lift mandatory mask rule. Image Credit:

Return to normalcy

“Our students cheered when I told them that it is no longer mandatory for them to wear masks at school. As we return to normalcy, we are excited to be able to truly come together as a community,” Dr Jay Teston, Principal of Nibras International School in Dubai, told Gulf News.

“A big thank you to this courteous nation, UAE, for shielding society, and guiding us to follow the COVID-19 precautionary measures for more than two years. Now that the government has eased the use of masks, it is our turn and responsibility to protect ourselves and others. After almost two years, I feel satisfied to see my students, confident and happy faces without their masks,” added Paramjit Ahluwalia, principal at Dunes International School in Abu Dhabi.

Focus on hygiene

“The students, staff and parents of GEMS Al Barsha National School were delighted to receive confirmation this week that facemasks will no longer be mandatory in schools. This exciting development reminds us once again of the successful nationwide initiatives that have helped to keep our communities safe and well over the last two and a half years. We look forward now with great hope and optimism to the future, with our students’ well-being still at the heart of all our work, enabling them to feel increasing confidence about their health and safety. We of course remain committed to adhering to ongoing precautionary measures in place to safeguard our community, including maintaining the highest standards of cleanliness and hygiene in and around the school,” said Karim Murcia, principal and chief executive officer at GEMS Al Barsha National School.

“The recent announcement that masks will no longer be required in most indoor places, including schools, is welcomed by us. It will be great to once again see the expressions of all our students and teachers during lessons, their smiles in assemblies. GEMS Metropole School will continue to follow the guidelines and protocols to prevent the spread of the virus through our robust sanitising measures and other health and safety protocols,” added Naveed Iqbal, principal and chief executive officer at GEMS Metropole School — Motor City.

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Pandemic response

The UAE led many nations in its fight against COVID-19, rolling out a raft of measures to protect the community in the face of the infectious disease. As a first line of defence, all schools, nurseries and universities were mandated to switch to distance learning in March 2020. About six months later, with a robust precautionary and testing system, educational institutions gradually began to roll out in-person learning once again, but students enrolled in Grade 1 or higher were required to don face masks and practice social distancing at all times. Schools also had to mandate regular PCR testing for students.

In 2021, COVID-19 vaccines became available across the UAE, and educational authorities urged educators, parents and eventually schoolchildren to avail of the protective shots. The widespread uptake of the vaccines then allowed educational authorities to eventually relax social distancing requirements, and do away with masks in outdoor spaces.

The requirement for PCR testing was finally removed at the start of the current academic term in August 2022, and the elimination of the facemask requirement effectively removes the last traces of COVID-19 precautions from school campuses.

Student excitement

Students were undeniably excited to be able to attend school without face masks.

“Wow! I feel like a free bird. It feels very comfortable to speak to my friends and my teachers too. I can now laugh and talk freely, and see the beautiful faces of my friends and teacher, which I missed for two long years,” Myesha Maria, a first grader at Dunes International School, told Gulf News.

“When wearing mask was made mandatory around the globe about two years ago, it took time for all of us to get accustomed to the habit. Now we all feel that not wearing masks feels “out of the ordinary”, said Sunand Chitikala, a Grade 11 student at the same school in Abu Dhabi.

Neha Newalkar, a Year 13 student at GEMS Metropole School — Motor City, said she had been looking forward to this day for a while.

“It is exciting to see that the mask mandate has finally been lifted for schools. Being able to see our peers and the younger students’ faces after two years and having a new sense of freedom is something we have all been looking forward to for a long time now. I think it is safe to say that we are thrilled with the announcement, and we cannot wait to see those happy faces in our classrooms, corridors and collaboration spaces,” she said.

Hadi I, a Grade 5 student at Nibras International School, appeared greatly relieved. “I feel really happy because masks were quite uncomfortable. I’m happy it’s over,” he said.

“It’s really great because I get to see everyone’s faces, and no one’s [hidden] behind the masks now,” added Farah A, a Grade 5 student at Nibras.

“I’ve been wearing a mask for such a long time, and I find it uncomfortable, so I love the news that we won’t have to wear masks anymore. It’s also good because we’ll be able to see people’s faces again; with masks it’s sometimes difficult to hear or understand what others are saying,” said Ahmad Al Yousuf, a Year 5 student at GEMS Al Barsha National School.

Gratitude among parents

Meanwhile, parents have greeted the decision with gratitude and joy, complimenting the UAE for its careful approach to student and community safety.

“I was delighted to hear that the mask mandate was lifted. Firstly, I would like to congratulate the UAE government for the impeccable handling of the pandemic, and the overwhelming care extended to all Emiratis and residents equally. I am glad to know that it is — for all practical reasons — behind us now. It is exciting to know that children can go to schools now without face coverings, interacting with their peers and everyone else face to face as it is supposed to be, enabling them to resume learning in this journey,” said Faisal Alyousuf, a parent at GEMS Al Barsha National School

“While masks were important for the past two and a half years, it is also just as important to deal with each other with bare faces, for enhanced learning, to develop stronger emotional intelligence and many other advantages associated with this,” he added.

“It’s wonderful that our children can see the smiles and expressions of their teachers and peers again. It won’t be easy for some children, though, as they will not have been without their mask all this while, and therefore may experience anxiety. It has been a long time coming, but the UAE has managed this process well and I feel the government has made the right choice at the right time,” said Yasmin Khan, a parent at GEMS Metropole School — Motor City.