Covid 19 Back to School 2020. Or Not? And How? The New Landscape facing Schools and Parents in UAE Schools.
Background: Covid 19 Back to School 2020 – or Not? And How? The New Landscape facing Schools and Parents in UAE Schools.
It is just days before children return to the classroom – or for some, continue distance learning. Parents are rightly still anxious, and schools have been feverishly working to implement safety measures to reassure both parents, and teachers.
Safety remains at the heart of decisions being made on all sides.
Dubai’s education regulator, the KHDA, has just released new contracts for parents to sign, according to the model of learning they opt for, from face-to-face to distance learning, and in between, the blended models, in spite of mandating that schools must re-open in September with full health and safety measures in place. Central to the new contracts and back-to school protocols are that parents must be given the choice whether to send children back to school – and schools must provide full Distance Learning for those that opt out:
“In the first phases of re-opening […] as a temporary measure, schools can and should provide 100% distance learning provision in the new academic year to parents who request it.”
In Abu Dhabi the same choice is fundamental – and older children will return one month later. Conditions for returning are being continuously updated to ensure safety. As of 23 August, Covid tests are being made compulsory for everyone over 12 years old within schools.
Our sister site, WhichSchoolAdvisor, in the biggest survey of its kind ever undertaken directly with parents, found:
“There is also a significant difference in the views between the emirates. In Dubai, 87% of parents want schools to reopen in September, and just 13% for schools to continue to distance learning. In Abu Dhabi, just over 55% want schools to reopen, and just under 45% of parents want distance learning to continue.”
According to the Khaleej Times poll, 61.45 per cent of the students prefer e-learning while 38.55 per cent of pupils want to opt for in-school classes.
The most recent Ministry of Education among parents showed 59 per cent supporting distance learning in the first term of the new academic year.
For WhichSchoolAdvisor.com the situation is nuanced between types of schools, locations and cultural context:
“One reason for this may simply be demographics and housing. Respondents in Abu Dhabi are more likely to be Emirati, Arab or from the subcontinent, and more likely to have a number of generations living in the same household. They are therefore, quite naturally, more concerned about the risk of Covid-19 affecting elderly relatives living in close proximity to children.”
Full WhichSchoolAdvisor.com analysis can be found here.
Bottom line? As Covid 19 cases rise or fall, the worries and views and guidance change. What remains static is the universally accepted need for children to receive the highest quality education, however that is delivered.
The View from Schools – Hybrid and Complete Return Options
Darren Gale, Principal of Horizon International School, says that the return to school will be an exercise for all, in adapting to change.
“At Horizon International School, we teach adaptability and managing change as integral aspects of our curriculum. The only new in the new normal will be arrivals, movement through the school, drop off and some groupings for lessons. Washing hands, good hygiene and wearing a mask are no longer new activities for children; there has been this heightened expectation since March 2020.”
Mr Gale says that it is vital to focus on what will be the same when returning to school, rather than highlighting things which have changed, as consistency for children, is key.
“There needs to be a balance if we are going to be role models to children of how to effectively manage change.”
Though there may be some students doing blended and distance learning options, Mr Gales told SchoolsCompared.com that:
“At Horizon International School we are confident that we can effectively blend school based learning and distance learning to provide a stimulating and meaningful experience for children.”
Across the emirates, several models of Covid 19 Back to School are being offered.
At Horizon English School, the aim is to have children in each day, with staggered timings for specific year groups. Year 2-6 will attend from 7.30 am to 2.40pm, FS1 8am to 1.00pm and FS2: 8am to 1.40pm.
Our review of Horizon International School can be found here.
At the expansive Repton School Dubai, space is not a hindrance, allowing pupils to return to a full-time schedule without disruption.
David Cook, Headmaster, Repton School Dubai explains:
”A modest number of pupils have requested on medical grounds to receive support via distance learning and we are able to meet these requests. In addition, Early Years will have staggered drop off and pick up timings, which will slightly alter their daily timings at the start and finish of the day.”
With the KHDA having produced a comprehensive list of 118 health and safety protocols that all schools must adhere to, in order to deliver social distancing and a safe school environment, Mr Cook says that safety is paramount:
“Repton Dubai has a superb and large campus and we are delighted that we can accommodate all our pupils on campus, whilst still meeting these important safety protocols.”
Our review of Repton School Dubai can be found here.
Zoe Woolley, Headmistress at Foremarke School, emphasises the importance of children returning to school for both social and academic reintegration:
“Foremarke School Dubai will open every day for every pupil, though a small number have requested to stay off site for various reasons. These families will also have additional support from the pastoral team.
No more than 10 will be in a class to allow for physical distancing though some subjects such as PE can accommodate more children if the space is well managed.”
Ms Wooley says that she is:
“…hoping to get the curriculum back to normal as fast as possible, ensuring children don’t miss out on key subjects and physical activity.”
Our review of Foremarke School in Dubai can be found here.
The View from Schools – The On-line Option
Meanwhile, distance learning for many parents and pupils, has proven a positive experience, and while there is so much uncertainty, vast numbers have signed up to the KHDA approved iCademy Middle East. Cody Claver, the school’s General Manager, says:
“I can tell you that there is continued interest and demand for quality online and homeschool options. There are many parents that continue to be concerned for their children’s health and safety given the continued uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not all parents are convinced that face to face is the best way for their children to start back to school, not least while there are precautions in place such as wearing masks all day, limits on school activities and strict regulations on interaction.
Many parents are turning to trusted sources of online and homeschool options as a solution, including iCademy, for parents wanting to keep the doors open to bring children back into the Dubai school system.
Parents are less concerned about the style of curriculum, IB, British, American … and are more focused on the quality of the engagement of learning their children will experience.”
Until there is a clear pathway toward solving this health crisis, some parents will continue to be reluctant to send their children back to a brick and mortar school, he says, and after so many months of remote learning, many have become far more comfortable with the model:
“We have seen parents who have had their eyes opened to a reality they may not have believed possible before, with students engaging in their learning at a deeper level, and taking ownership for their learning in a way parents have not seen before.
“Online learning and homeschooling is a lifestyle much different than the pace and life of traditional schools.
Students actually enjoy the personal freedom and responsibility that comes with it. I think one of the biggest takeaways is that parents are getting a real understanding that online and homeschooling is a lifestyle they can make work for their family.”
Our review of iCademy Middle East can be found here.
Covid 19 Back to School and KHDA School Contracts – What do the conditions of return look like?
This week, an extensive email was sent to all parents, listing schools and parents’ responsibilities and within that, the rules for schools to follow when children are on site.
When in school:
- The main difference will be the groupings of students in Years 7, 8 and 9, which will enable the students to remain in the same classroom for the vast majority of lessons. Other year groups (Years 10, 11, 12 & 13) will also follow an adapted curriculum whereby, when appropriate, the students will access lessons through the use of technology (MST) which will enable students in those year groups to remain in stable groupings as often as possible.
- Where rotation does occur, students will still follow a strict seating plan in classrooms where the seating will be arranged at a minimum 1.5 metre Social Distance.
- Strict sanitisation regimes will be followed before, during and after each lesson by students and staff, which will include the sanitisation of desks and chairs in between each lesson.
- Where movement time is required, students will be monitored to ensure protocols are followed at all times which will include new flow systems and signage and supervision to ensure masks are worn at all times and that students remain 2 metres apart.
- Where appropriate, students of determination will continue to access the curriculum in the same way as their peers, with staff made aware of each student’s IEP. If a student of determination is deemed to require alternative or specific support, they will be regrouped into a stable learning group with any other students who require similar support and taught a separate curriculum. In this case, we will redeploy LSAs in order to provide the appropriate support for those students whilst ensuring staffing and student groupings remain stable.
Full information from the KHDA can be found here.
Managing Anxiety of Returning to School
After several months at home, parents, teachers and children are inevitably feeling some degree of back-to-school anxiety. School drop-off for many, will be the hardest part and with new Covid-19 prevention measures in place, it will not look the same as pre-pandemic either. Schools will ensure minimal people on site, meaning parents can only enter by appointment only. There will be no hanging around at school entrances to avoid large numbers gatherings, so a brisk farewell is on the cards.
Schools Compared asked the experts what the best routine is to say goodbye and what tips can help through those first few days back at school.
Educational pscyhologist Dr Diksha Laungani says children take their cues from the parents and caregivers so these are key in enabling a smooth transition. Prepare, but don’t expect a perfect run, she says. With many factors at play during this transition to school, very little can be controlled. What can be controlled however, is building a return routine:
“Ease your child into the routines and structures that accompany going to school beforehand such as practicing early bedtimes and set wake up times, including encouraging the children to get dressed by themselves and any other aspects of being independent.”
Sara Hedger, Head of Safeguarding and Child Protection at GEMS Education, agrees:
“Practice skills that increase independence; effective hand washing, toileting, opening and handling food, social distancing, using a mask, so that they need less support from adults which not only makes them feel great but limits physical contact.”
While the normal rituals of ‘getting ready for school’ will be well known to parents, children and school staff, there is comfort in those rituals; so things like the familiar trips to buy school shoes and uniform, choosing stationery, completing planners and timetables, booking transport, can be used as means of creating a sense of excitement, not least, about reuniting with friends.
However, preparing for a new ‘pandemic routine’ is important too.
Ms Hedger says it is vital to get your child used to being left with someone other than parents or regular caregiver, even if they are not new to school. It has been a long time since children were at school, so it can feel like starting afresh:
“Within COVID-19 guidelines, start by leaving them for maybe an hour and then build up the time. Separation at the school gate or classroom door will be easier if they have already practised leaving you.”
Creating excitement and things to look forward to, are key, agrees Dr Laungani. However, if change feels overwhelming, small steps are important:
“Instead of preparing your child for their entire routine at school, speak about the ‘first things’ that they will encounter such as a bus ride, first teacher, first lesson, etc. An entire schedule may be overwhelming to face beforehand.”
While it will be hard for both parents and children, she encourages parents not to linger or drag out the drop-off process:
“You may be tempted to turn back and give them some more time with you at school before you leave, or simply a few more hugs. While these are not wrong in any way, they will elongate the transition. This is one of the rare times that a strong front is helpful for both parent and child.”
What may ease this feeling, however, is a “see you soon” rather than “goodbye”, she suggests. “Going to school is not an ending but just another chapter in their day and your language must reflect that,” explains Dr Laungani:
“Emphasise home time and allow them to choose what you can do together once they come home from school or you return from work. This will reinforce to them that they will be back and can seek comfort from activities and people at home.”
GEMS Schools are reviewed throughout our site. For example, GEMS FirstPoint School is reviewed here, GEMS Winchester School is reviewed here, GEMS Jumeirah College is reviewed here and GEMS Metropole School is reviewed here.
The Year 6 to Year 7 Transition
Starting ‘big school’ can be daunting for many children, and for parents too, this can be unnerving. Starting new routines, new relationships with teachers and peers, from both sides, can bring with it some anxiety.
Dr Diksha Laungani, an educational psychologist based at Carbone Clinic in Dubai Healthcare City, says that the transition from primary to secondary/middle school is a crucial change for young children, as this signifies a shift at the academic, social and physiological (physical) levels, all of which could influence mental wellbeing. Add to that several months of distance learning, meaning marking the rite of passage that is the end of primary school went without fanfare, many will feel a few jitters about the transition. However, there are ways to ease the process.
She suggests not to be dismissive of any worries that your child highlights. Rather than telling them not to worry, a more useful approach might include saying, “It’s quite okay to feel unsure about going to Year 7”, or “I can see that you are worried about school, let’s talk about it”. Your reassurance will go a long way, says Dr Laungani.
Nonchalance, avoidance, frustration, grumpiness or aggression can all be very normal when you bring up school-related topics at this time, she says:
“Not all children may want to openly speak about what they are experiencing and some may not even be aware of a change in their feelings or emotions. They need you to ‘notice and name’ what you see in their body language or expression which is a key aspect of co-regulation, i.e., an attuned interaction in which an adult provides the space for a child to freely express and experience their inner states.”
Instead, she suggests parents turn worries into strategies whereby you discuss your child’s concerns and present an open, tentative question such as, “What can we do about it?”. This will allow you an opportunity to jointly problem-solve.
Sonia Singhal, psychologist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, says that if your child stops interacting with family and friends and chooses to spend all of their time alone in their room or starts complaining about attending school or online classes, parents should ask open questions and encourage them to talk about their worries and concerns freely:
“Reassure them that the transition to middle school can be difficult and it takes time to adjust but that they are not alone. Provide your child with support and resources and get connected with people who can help you and your child to manage the transition.”
Information is key, say the experts, empowering children to prepare by researching school websites, social media and even doing a site visit if possible. “Online research is their domain and area of expertise,” says Dr Laungani. “Responsibility breeds control, which helps them feel confident.”
She also suggests families seek out students and families attending the same school. Ms Singhal, agrees, and says the social factor is key:
“Encourage your child to get excited about new friends and new adventures and support them in joining new clubs and groups and starting new activities to meet new people, either online or in person if it is safe to do so. It is important to reassure your child that developing new friendships takes time and not to panic if it doesn’t happen right away.
Help your child to understand and accept the fact that some peers may not want to be friends with them and how to manage this rejection.”
However, continuity is key too. Ensuring some stability and consistency throughout all the change can be done by maintaining old friendships, continuing with a successful routine or structure and carrying on with previous activities or family traditions.
Ms Singhal says preparing your child for the increase in academic pressure that comes with starting middle school will help enormously:
“Learn about the new curriculum and academic expectations, especially given the current Covid-19 situation, so that you can help your child navigate through the necessary requirements. It’s is important to understand your child’s learning style and what their academic strengths and difficulties are, both online and in class, and to discuss elements like how homework will increase and may take more time than before and how to plan for dedicating more time to schoolwork in general. Be prepared for increased stress and how to manage this. Give them more independence and let them be more self-reliant whilst maintaining your level of interest and availability.”
Even making the mundane fun can be a critical part of the transition to ‘big school’, she says. Buying things like back to school essentials can be an event in itself, whether online shopping or in person for a day out. “ Let your child choose their back to school gear and encourage them to enjoy getting prepared for day one. As much as possible, make sure your child has everything they need to feel excited and ready to start their first day at middle school,” she says.
Covid 19 adds complexity to these issues, but many core worries remain the same as those faced by generations of parents historically.
Bottom line, with any worries, and when in doubt, seek expert support, as these are challenging times for everyone.
You are not alone.
Bottom Line? The SchoolsCompared View of Back to Covid 19 School 2020
As parents, the issues facing us in this year of Covid 19 Back to School are complex and different – but also similar; plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Parents are still facing the same issues they have for generations – saying goodbye at the school gate, Year 6 transition and whether our little ones will get lost, financial worries….
The differences have come with the fundamental options we have, quite rightly, been given to choose between Distance Learning, hybrid schooling or a full return-to-school for our children.
There is no right answer here – except that the balance between safety and high quality education is a fine one. It depends on the school, family context, needs of the child and family.
Our worries will be the same – but added to.
What we do know, definitively, is that ADEK, the KHDA and the UAE MOE, together with regulators across each of the emirates, has set in place very high standards of Distance Learning to ensure that, as far as possible, the quality of education children received from schools if they are educated from home is high.
Whatever choice each of us, in the year of the Covid 19 Back to School, makes as a parent is also not an absolute one. Things change. Many of us who have chosen to send our children back to school may find that decision reversed in days or weeks. And vice versa.
In the years to come, when our children ask us why we made the choices that we did, if we can answer that we made what we believed were the very choices for them, they could not have asked for more than that.
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