Abu Dhabi and Dubai: The smiles were mostly hidden by colourful masks, but the excitement in the air was unmistakable as children across the UAE headed back to school after the summer.
For many, it was the first they were stepping into school campuses after about a year and a half, and the entire experience felt both familiar and strange.
“I am excited. It is really good to see new faces, new teachers, new people in the school. Hopefully, I'll get good results too!” said British expat, Riley, 15, a Year 11 student at Dubai’s Sunmarke School.
“I’m happy to be back at school because I get to have fun, learn and be with my friends,” chimed in Hajar Al Baumy, a Grade 4 student at GEMS Al Barsha National School.
A widespread vaccination campaign and rigorous screening protocols, have prompted many families to opt for in-class learning this term, coinciding with the start of the 2021-2022 academic year at many schools. A select number of students, particularly students of determination, have, however chosen to continue full-time distance learning offered by their schools.
In preparation for the students’ return, schools were thoroughly sanitised and disinfected against COVID-19. This term, the physical distancing requirement has been reduced to one metre between individuals, thus allowing more children to be accommodated within the premises.
A significant number of schoolchildren have had to present negative COVID-19 PCR test results, taken over the last 96 hours, in order to physically return to school in person. In addition, children aged 16 years and older who are returning to school in person are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The requirements announced by education and health authorities over the summer, however do not apply to students who have opted for full-time distance learning – which is still available at public schools and select private schools, students enrolled in Dubai private schools, and children aged less than 12 years at Sharjah’s private schools.
The Emirates Schools Establishment, which regulates all UAE public schools, said a total of 282,134 students returned to public schools today, following intensive preparation by school authorities. Jameela Bint Salem Al Muhairi, Minister of State for Public Education and chairperson of the Establishment board, congratulated students on their return, after they had received full-time distance learning for nearly two years due to the pandemic. The Establishment has also this year developed a manual to manage the school day for students of all ages.
Abu Dhabi emirate’s private and charter school regulator, the Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek), also announced that it had rigorously inspected all institutions, and given the reopening go-ahead to 221 schools. This includes full vaccination against COVID-19 for all staff, barring those who are medically exempt.
In Dubai, schools are looking forward to face-to-face instruction for all children from October 3 onwards, as announced by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) that regulates private schools in the emirate.
Apart from greater in-person attendance being permitted at schools this term, schools have once again been allowed to reopen canteens, prayer rooms, and libraries. They are also now allowed to organise sporting activities, as long as COVID-19 preventive protocols are implemented.
Face masks continue to remain compulsory for children’s aged six or more, and children must continue to practise personal hygiene and sanitisation measures while in class.
As a precaution, students will also have to undergo PCR testing every 14 days during the first month of schooling, followed by a test every month if they are aged less than 12 years, or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and aged at least 12 years. Those who are 12 years or more, but not vaccinated, have to take a PCR test every week, unless they have opted for full-time distance learning, or are enrolled in a Dubai private school.
Meanwhile, authorities are continuing to encourage COVID-19 vaccination among students, with the UAE having already approved two vaccines for school age children - Sinopharm for children three years or more, and Pfizer for children aged 12 years and older. The green pass protocol is also being implemented at Abu Dhabi schools.
An excited lot
Indian expat student Misha Mehra, 11, attending Jumeirah College in Year 7, is super excited to head back to school after more than a year.
“I am beyond excited to be back to school nearly after one and half years. Am looking forward to meeting my new teachers and friends. I have to admit I am a little nervous too from the social distancing protocol. I just want to be make sure I don’t forget my mask and maintain social distance at all time. I will be sanitising and keeping myself self," she said.
Pakistani expat, Mohammed Aqib Aqeel, 7, Year 2 at Al Salam Private School in Al Nahda Dubai, is attending his first day of school with mixed feelings. “I was very excited when my parents took me shopping and we did my back-to-school purchases. I got a new set of pencils, rubber, shoes, bag. It was great. Today morning, however, I felt a bit nervous and asked my mother again and again about the social distancing protocols. I know I have to wear mask now all the time and have to keep sanitising. Then when I reached school, I saw my teachers and friends and it was so fun," he said.
Antony Koshy, principal at Global Indian International School, Dubai, said the school is prioritising student safety as it looks ahead to organising school activities.
"We have over 650 students enrolled, and around 70 per cent of pupils have opted for in-class learning, which an increase of 15 per cent from last term. We are confident that that the numbers will increase further, and we will continue to offer online learning till 3rd of October, in line with KHDA guidelines," the principal said.
"Prior to this term, we saw more than 50 per cent of our student strength coming into the campus; however, this term will be exciting as we will be able to conduct assemblies, extra-curricular activities, excursions, and camps while following all safety protocols. We are all set to resume these in-person after school activities after a gap of one-and-a-half years, and are thrilled at the opportunity to bring schooling back to what we believe it should be. While online learning had its benefits, face-to-face learning brings in the human interaction factor, which is the basis of all-round development of the child," he added.
Dr V.V. Abdulkader, principal at The Model School, Abu Dhabi, said 800 of 5,200 enrolled students have opted for full-time distance learning this term.
"We follow all required health protocols, and 98 per cent of all school staff is fully vaccinated as we start the term. The rest are set to complete their shots within a month. So it is really safe for children to return to their classes in person, especially as we look ahead to enjoyable school-based activities and sports from this term onwards," he said.
A different return
Speaking of the first day of school, Heena Rachh, principal at Global Indian International School Abu Dhabi, called it an overwhelming yet strange experience.
“Children and parents have actually heaved a sigh of relief that finally the schools have thrown the doors open. They look forward to real-time learning in a physical l space, and teachers are excited that finally they get to interact with kids and feel their emotions. Many students have opted for in-person learning, and the few who have resumed classes today are very excited. After completing PCR testing and other formalities, many more would be joining in couple of days,” she said.
“When we returned back to school, it felt familiar but there were also many changes. As teachers, we needed to adjust to this new teaching-learning process. It was also important to maintain daily routines as it increased feelings of safety and security. With the new guidelines and regulations, we are happy and feel safe and secure in the school, said Shabista Survey, math coordinator at the school who has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Jason King, Principal at the Regent International School, said the first day of school has seen a bright start "It's the first day of school and it's great to see the bright, young and hungry for learning faces entering our school. Our Regent Parents have been wonderful in supporting us with following protocol by keeping their Al Hosn apps open so we can check their vaccination status. When it comes to the safety of the school and our families, it is a collaborative effort, right from the administration staff, teachers, to our parents. They have all been supportive in making the first day of school safe and exciting. What a fantastic start to the first day of school and academic year!" he said.
“Despite record numbers of new students, the whole school community was wonderful in adhering to the new KHDA Protocols, and we had a smooth start to the year. All students have settled into their new classes and there is a wonderful atmosphere in the school as we anticipate a great year ahead,” said Dr. Neil Hopkin, Principal at Sunmarke School said.
Many schools are this term offering full face-to-face learning for all students.
“We are delighted to welcome Raha’s 2,750 students back to face-to-face learning for the new academic year. We have been busy throughout the summer preparing our indoor and outdoor learning spaces at both our Abu Dhabi campuses, and [couldn’t] wait to have our students back in school ready to start the year,” said Kathryn Simms, vice principal at Raha International School and head of the Gardens campus.
“We are really looking forward to an exciting term post summer. Nearly 80 per cent of our students from kindergarten and primary are on site for face-to-face learning, and a very good number in middle and secondary school as well. We’re looking forward to a safe and a very rejuvenating, exciting term ahead,” added Fatima Martin, Principal at GEMS New Millennium School.