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Dubai private schools say they're ready to reopen in September even as they await official directive

Dhanusha Gokulan (Principal Correspondent)
dhanusha@khaleejtimes.com Filed on June 4, 2020 | Last updated on June 5, 2020 at 07.56 am
Dubai private schools, Dubai, school fee, covid relief fund, covid-19

(Photo: Alamy)

An official reopening date is yet to be announced by the ministry.

Heads of various private school groups in Dubai have expressed their readiness to re-open school campuses in September, following the summer holidays.

The Education Business Group, a recently - formed group that represents 100 private schools in Dubai, is hoping for eased regulations, operational flexibilities and financial support to help schools survive a post-pandemic world.

Though an official re-opening date is yet to be announced by the UAE Ministry of Education and the private school regulators of various Emirates, heads of schools have said it is a 'socially and economically imperative for the UAE' to re-open school campuses.

Schools have already begun devising safety protocols that keep the health and safety of children at paramount importance said members of the Education Business Group during a virtual press meet on Thursday, June 4.

However, medical professionals Khaleej Times reached out said even though studies have said the incidence of Covid-19 among children in the pediatric age group is low, it is difficult to estimate kids' role in transmitting the virus.

Dr Jobby Jacob, a specialist paediatrician Prime Medical Centre, Barsha said, "Re-opening schools depend on four factors - the infection rate across the community at that time, capacity of the healthcare system, the education system infrastructure, and the cultural values of the community. Schools need to take these factors into consideration."

UAE schools can learn from global practices

Since the outbreak, schools and universities in the UAE have been closed since March 8. In a matter of weeks, schools successfully adjusted to e-learning. Globally, since mid-May, China, Japan, Taiwan, and 22 European countries, including Norway and Denmark, have welcomed students back into school campuses by following strict social distancing norms.

Williamson said the UAE is in a very advantageous position for re-opening in September as it can watch and learn re-opening and safety methodologies adopted by other countries, including the UK, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

"The UAE has taken rapid and swift decisions and transformed our schools in a week by adopting digital learning. Now, we are ready to transform back into the new norm," said Williamson.

Difficult to estimate kids' role in transmitting virus: Doctors

Dr Jacob said, in the initial stages, it would be better to keep the school open for primary and pre-primary students.  

"Fortunately, evidence from China and USA shows a low incidence of infection among children in the paediatric age group. In schools, it is not just students who are under risk. There are staff, teachers, and the overall community." He said as it is difficult to estimate the kids' role in transmitting the virus, older teachers and school leaders might face higher risks.

Social distancing would be paramount in school campuses. Parents have to educate children, depending on their level of understanding. Mode of transportation, such as school buses, should be well sanitised and there must be enough space between them. Classrooms must have lesser students as well.

However, Dr Prabhakar Patil, a specialist paediatrician at Medcare Women and Children Hospital in Dubai said if schools do not remain open, children could develop psychological issues over time. "However, if schools do open in September, a robust medical facility must be instituted within the school infrastructure and schools must adopt an individualized approach to each child. For example, children with asthma and co-morbid conditions can be excused from going to school," said Dr Patil.

Strict sanitization and blended learning to be adopted in the UAE

New operational methods and rigorous sanitization methods would be followed by schools, including the use of 'blended learning' strategy. This practice allows some students to come into schools during the week while others continue distance education, reducing the number of students on-campus during a given time.

Schools groups such as GEMS Education have already created a 'risk assessment document', and the Taaleem group of schools and Fortes Group is also in the process of creating their own set of guidelines to manage school education post-pandemic.

Pupils need to interact

The panellists unanimously agreed upon the importance of schools for the overall well-being of children. "The social aspect is being missed. We are missing science labs, sports fields, dance and art studios. We are missing the totality of the curriculum," said Williamson.

Sir Christopher Stone, the global chief education officer at GEMS Education, said that while there is a certain amount that can be taught online, children need to interact.

He said, "While what we have achieved through remote learning is amazing, children need to return to schools as different children learn in different ways. Some have special education needs, some learn by doing things through practical work, some prefer teamwork, and we must consider these." Poonam Bhojani, the CEO of Innoventures Education, said, "The safety and the well-being of our students and staff is our primary goal."

Schools appeal for financial support from govt.

The past few months have been economically challenging for schools, and have appealed for support from the government of UAE, said a few panellists.

Kalthoom Ali Salem, a committee member of the Education Business Group, said, "Non-payment of fees by students, the provision of discounts, and uncertainties regarding new enrolments and variable operational costs are putting tremendous pressure on schools that can affect operational continuity."

Ajay Makani, the director of Fortes Education, said, "We would like flexibility from the government in choosing our operation model, flexibility in our HR practices from MOHRE, and fiscal support. We require a little bit of regulation in terms of whether it is mandatory in asking our parents to pay fees."

He added, "Our human resource expenses are 60 to 70 per cent, so we need flexibility to perhaps furlough staff and decide how we manage staff." Makani said schools are undergoing financial pressures that come with having no visibility on our enrolment and parents losing their jobs.

"As a chain of schools, we are living from week to week, and term to term as we are unable to forecast cash flows. We are asking for flexibility in choosing our operating models. We are asking for is fiscal support and regulation support," he explained.

Adding to which, Alan Williamson, the CEO of Taaleem, said, "UAE's economy needs parents back at the workforce and not at home educating their children. The private sector employs 50,000 teachers, a massive part of the workforce. Re-opening schools ensure these jobs are not lost." Amol Vaidya, the director of operations at the Global Indian School, also raised the need for amending teacher qualification criteria.

dhanusha@khaleejtimes.com

 

author

Dhanusha Gokulan

Originally from India, Dhanusha Gokulan has been working as a journalist for 10 years. She has a keen interest in writing about issues that plague the common person, and will never turn down a human interest story. She completed her Bachelor in Arts in Journalism, Economics, and English Literature from Mangalore University in 2008. In her spare time, she dabbles with some singing/songwriting, loves travelling, and Audible is her favourite mobile application. Tweet at her @wordjunkie88


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