Coronavirus Pandemic

Covid-19 in UAE: The school year that was

Filed on July 5, 2021
Photo by Neeraj Murali/Khaleej Times

Most UAE schools officially ended the 2020-21 academic year on Thursday.

Now that a ‘challenging’ school year has finally come to an end, teachers and students are left not only with a treasure trove of academic learnings but also new life skills.

Most UAE schools officially ended the 2020-21 academic year on Thursday, with the two-month summer vacation beginning on Sunday.

Throughout the year, everyone — from teachers to students — has had to adjust to an entirely new education landscape, which involved long hours of Zoom sessions. At the same time, however, it was an opportunity that expanded teaching and learning strategies.

Dr Saima Rana, CEO and principal of GEMS World Academy–Dubai, Al Barsha South, said they had to strike a balance between “keeping the school open and keeping everyone safe”.

“Keeping the school open was important to maintain student and staff welfare, as mental health issues due to isolation and loneliness caused by school closures during this time have been an enormous problem,” Rana said.

Group work and the usual full repertoire of teaching and learning may have been curtailed due to Covid safety rules, but institutions managed to overcome the challenges.

“We used strict protocols (social distancing, face masks worn at all times, hand washing, etc.) which of course did interfere with the normal sociability in school. Meetings with staff and parents were all online; although better than nothing, these were not ideal. In the classrooms, learning and teaching were to a point affected by all this,” Rana said.

Muhammad Ali Kottakkulam, principal of Gulf Indian High School Dubai, said the unexpected shift to e-learning in March 2020 posed a ‘big challenge’. “As a CBSE school, we had to reopen the new academic year on April 1st and we were brainstorming on different ideas to start the ‘show’.”

Along the way, schools were able to pull it all off. “Starting from poorly refined synchronous mode, schools researched and found innovative ideas to enrich the synchronous sessions and make them more interactive. The system slowly evolved close to perfection. Schools worked out clear plans for reopening in September 2020, strictly following the protocols for blended and face-to-face sessions,” Kottakkulam said.

“Now with students aged 12 and above vaccinated, we hope for a better face-to-face academic year in September 2022.”

Institutions also needed to gain a better understanding of their students, using different forms of assessment, such as open-book exams, project-based assessments and virtual ones.

Ghadeer Abu-Shamat, superintendent and CEO of GEMS Al Khaleej National School, and vice-president for education at GEMS Education, said: “While students who chose to stay at home for their learning faced the challenge of not being able to sit their exams physically, we saw this challenge as an opportunity to review our assessment policy without affecting the reliability of the results.”

Online learning have taught students, as well as teachers, new skills that went beyond the syllabus.

“It has taught students how to persevere in their studies. Despite having many challenges with subjects such as sciences and practical-based subjects, distance learning allowed the students and teachers to be both innovative and persistent,” said 18-year old Youssef Rezkalla, student of GEMS Wellington Academy Al Khail.

“In September 2020, I was welcomed back to my school and the transition back was so smooth. Social distancing measures were followed by staff and students and learning was optimised. I have taken the vaccine and it allowed me to feel safer while going out and meeting students and staff on a daily basis,” added the Egyptian expat.

Amatullah Ariswala, a 12-year-old student of Al Diyafah High School, agreed: “Online learning, when it started, just didn’t seem to be a right fit. But gradually, it has sunk in so well that now if given an option, I would certainly like to continue learning remotely. It’s not only convenient but having access to all recordings/lessons is apt to refresh any information at any point of time.”

Looking back

>March 2020: Schools move to online learning

>September 2020: Some schools begin hybrid learning along with virtual learning

>December 2020: Residents above the age of 18 start getting vaccinated

>January 2021: Students above the age of 16 start getting vaccinated

>April 2021: UAE’s drive to vaccinate teachers and school staff rolled out

>May 2021: Students above the age of 12 start getting inoculated

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