On 22 March 2020, schools across the UAE closed their doors as the country went into lockdown in response to the pandemic. In a matter of days, they switched to distance learning and didn’t reopen until the end of August at the earliest, with many staying shut for much longer.
The disruption to schools, students and their families was unprecedented and has continued into the 2021-22 academic year.
Today, exactly one year on, education has in many ways been reinvented, and in others it has remained the same. With fully online and blended lessons, exam cancellations, social distancing and safety precautions, it is easy to conclude that schooling has transformed beyond recognition.
Yet through all these differences and challenges, the foundations of education have remained intact: teachers continue to teach, students continue to learn and the resilience of both continues to amaze.
Over the past 12 months, GEMS Education schools have overcome an array of obstacles and difficulties. Some have been easier than others, but all have presented opportunities for reflection, innovation, collaboration and learning.
The learning never stopped
Faced with the challenge of having to switch to distance learning at short notice, GEMS schools did a remarkable job transferring lessons, assessment and attendance, attainment and progress tracking online in record time. The shift affected the teaching of 8,000 practitioners and the learning of 120,000 students.
The success of this undertaking was largely thanks to sustained investment in technology and teacher training in the years before the pandemic – and the fact that, in many cases, schools were already using a number of innovative, online and cloud-based tools, not least GEMS’ own Phoenix Classroom learning management system (LMS).
To date, GEMS schools in the UAE have delivered a number of online sessions. And although the education delivery method may have changed, the quality of education has never been compromised.
The effectiveness of GEMS’ distance learning programme is reflected not only in the results of KHDA’s Distance Learning Evaluation (DLE), in which all assessed GEMS schools achieved the top-tier ‘Developed’ rating, but also in students’ excellent exam results, both in the summer of 2020 and, more recently, at the beginning of 2021.
GEMS graduates have also continued to secure placements in top post-secondary institutions around the world, assisted by school careers and university counsellors. A total of 3,225 pupils have accessed graduation opportunities to date (more here), amounting to AED32 million in scholarships from 73 different universities and institutions globally.
GEMS students have also continued to benefit from a range of university fairs, career talks, future skills and portfolio workshops, university preparation sessions, masterclasses, taster lectures and seasonal programmes. More than 350 of these virtual events have been delivered since March 2020 alone.
A focus on wellbeing and mental health
The wellbeing of children and adults has always been, and continues to be, a major priority for GEMS schools.
Training is in place for all GEMS staff on a variety of topics, including safeguarding, building resilience, transition and bereavement, ensuring staff are in the best position to be able to support students and families.
Over the course of the past year, schools have rolled out an array of wellbeing and happiness programmes and initiatives – many of them student-led – as part of the curriculum, assemblies, pastoral team engagement and interventions for students.
Student wellbeing initiatives include:
- Student counsellors providing students and parents with advice, guidance and information sessions on ways to stay safe and healthy.
- Provision of a wide range of information and guidance from schools as well as external agencies and partners.
- One-to-one support for students with emotional and learning needs to provide additional support.
- Adapted curriculum models and teaching strategies to reduce the amount of screen-time that students are exposed to during distance learning.
- Strategies to provide students with social time and connection during periods of remote learning.
Teacher wellbeing initiatives include:
- Adapted meeting and training cycles.
- Buddying staff members during periods of remote learning.
- Frequent opportunities for teachers to connect during periods of remote learning.
- Redesign of the performance management system focusing on staff wellbeing.
- Vouchers, ad hoc treats and weekly ‘thank you’ gifts for teachers and school staff.
Sara Hedger, Vice President – Safeguarding and Child Protection said:
“Wellbeing is not new to GEMS, we have always had strong pastoral support for our students as we recognise that students cannot perform at their best unless their mental health and wellbeing is taken care of. ”
“The GEMS approach to wellbeing is very much about thinking holistically for our students and this has been particularly important in the last 12 months.”
Training was in place for all staff on a variety of topics including safeguarding, building resilience, transition and bereavement so that staff would in the best position to be able to support students and families with anything that they might have been faced with whilst we have not physically been together.”
“However, whilst we have been working with students and families to address challenges, students have come out of the lockdown with a new set of skills. This might be a new hobby, learning how to compromise, working through differences with siblings or having a new perspective on global issues, family and school life etc.”
“The next 12 months, although still unknown will be important. Giving students skills above the academic will be vital. Empowering them to develop self-care, boundary setting and focusing on their psychological safety and what that looks like should be as important in the curriculum as the academics. It will be vital to change the narrative for students and adults in the next 12 months from perceived victim to empowered.”
All-inclusive and no one left behind
Every GEMS school has a dedicated Head of Inclusion, responsible for coordinating the provision for students of determination, with every inclusion department made up of a wide range of staff specifically skilled at supporting students with SEND.
Over the past year, as schools shifted to learning from home and then back to in-person schooling, GEMS schools have been creative and personalised in their approach to supporting children – especially those with special educational needs and Children of Determination.
Examples include modifying timetables to make room for one-on-one times in order to meet student needs, creating personalised visual timetables which help students to focus, and offering additional parent support.
Returning to face-to-face learning, children with SEN were invited to school before other children returned so they could meet with SEN coordinators, who prepared them with a personalised social story. Resources were also sent home to prepare for back to school.
Pashu Bhattacharya, Head of Inclusion, GEMS Modern Academy said:
“This period challenged our resources in terms of personnel and logistics in reaching out to every child under our care.”
“But once we learned to circumnavigate that, this experience ratified and reinforced many of our practices and systems.”
“It was equally empowering, as it forced us to think innovatively, trying to weave in appropriate support and ensuring that the challenge is kept intact… Thus keeping the curiosity and love for learning alive!”
“Our students took us by surprise by adapting to this new virtual way of learning, and progressing towards acquiring their goals despite the challenge.”
“Parent partnerships was an important component in this journey and helped us succeed.”
“We have students with diverse needs, those who need the push or motivation to achieve their goals, some who need extra guidance and support for acquiring the classroom goals, and some who are working on an alternative curriculum primarily focusing on life skills.”
“Here are some ways we have adapted to support children with determination:
- We have and had regular online and onsite sessions with students with SEN.
- Break-out groups were created in the class on TEAMS to pre-teach the concepts or even reinforce and explain the concepts taught in the class.
- Not only Special Educators, even teachers were taking individual or small group sessions for students who needed reinforcement or are following modified curriculum.
- School adopted different Artificial Intelligence resources to explain certain tricky concepts, especially in Mathematics and Science using Augmented Reality tech tools like Merge cube and Arloopa. We are particularly proud of using AI and AR during these unprecedented times.
- One of our students, who is blind, took time adjusting to the online learning mode. We adjusted her Individualised Education Programme (IEP) goals and moved to listening comprehension and vocabulary building as a primary goals, replacing Braille reading. Through songs and rhythm exercises her listening tolerance was extended and this aided her ability to improve her comprehension and building association skills. Spelling (rote learning- without Phonic association) was introduced as a goal. She thus managed to learn the CVC words in a recitation manner. This also served as a good memory enhancer! As a result she was inspired to keep pushing us to think out of our planned programme, and we kept modifying as she led the way!
- For those students with profound needs who were required to stay at home during the Covid 19 pandemic we provided an inspiring, alternative ASDAN curriculum to ensure that they remained and felt valued and central to school life and were, absolutely, not left behind.
Always active, always engaged
Over the course of the past year, concerns among parents and families over children exercising and staying active, especially during distance learning periods, have been comprehensively addressed by GEMS schools.
Although sports, PE classes, enrichment options and extracurricular activities have had to be limited or adapted for health and safety reasons, this has not prevented schools from finding ingenious and fun ways to keep students engaged and in shape.
Sports provision has been an integral part of schools’ on-site and distance learning programmes. PE has been taught both as live sessions through Microsoft Teams and as student-paced videos uploaded to school YouTube channels. Teachers have innovated to deliver sports days, large-scale events such as Dubai Fitness Challenge and other healthy-living initiatives as engaging virtual community events.
The GEMS-wide Active Kids programme delivered via the Phoenix Classroom platform has also proven a great success in encouraging students to be physically active through a variety of videos, tasks and challenges, while also rewarding them with points earned.
Health and safety at the forefront
From the first day of the pandemic, the health and safety of students and teachers has been the number one priority for GEMS schools. On top of extensive health and safety facilities and equipment already in place, GEMS has invested over AED 4 million in additional COVID-19 safety measures including thermal cameras, auto hand sanitiser units, safety signage, medical equipment and safety screens.
Beyond the introduction of essential precautionary measures such as facemasks, hand washing, social distancing and enhanced cleaning and sanitising protocols, the dedicated GEMS Health, Safety and Environment team has over the last 12 months also developed and implemented a range of additional systems and initiatives to keep school communities safe. These include:
- An electronic reporting system enabling schools to report positive COVID-19 cases that are subsequently tracked centrally
- A close contact reporting system, with automated communications sent to close contacts, allowing schools to track cases
- An automated electronic travel declaration system, allowing schools to easily identify anyone who has travelled and is therefore required to quarantine or provide a negative PCR test result
- A COVID-19 eLearning course rolled out to school communities including staff and parents
- COVID-19 awareness programmes rolled out to all GEMS medical teams
- Continuous health and safety inspections across all schools, as well as compliance inspections carried out by the relevant government regulators
In addition, the GEMS-wide vaccination campaign, rolled out as soon as vaccines became available, has proven a resounding success, with 90% of all eligible staff across 43 schools in the UAE having now received their first vaccine dose and close to 70% having received their second dose.
Summarising the past year, Maryssa O’Connor, Principal/CEO of GEMS Wellington International School and Cluster Lead, GEMS Education, said:
“We have established a new normal; education always being at the forefront, always moving forward.”
“And even in the most challenging periods of the last 12 months, we have celebrated achievements as students passed exams, gained accolades, were offered incredible university places and our youngest children developed new skills, experienced new learning and showed us they still love school.”
“As we transition, the challenge will be to hold on to what we have learned, especially for enhanced communication and shared learning opportunities, and to ensure we are moving forwards together.”
Michael Guzder, Vice President – Education, GEMS Education, said:
“The last 12 months have been a rollercoaster ride for most of us, but while the world went from bad to worse, our schools and our passionate and determined staff rose to the occasion and proved that ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’.”
“Almost overnight, online classes arrived and then only got better. Pupils and teachers embraced the new normal and soon all GEMS schools were up and galloping!”
“Then blended classes arrived and, once again, all went well, with no stone left unturned to ensure a healthy and safe campus environment for all.”
“The pandemic has brought out the best in so many. They have seen strengths that they never knew they possessed.”
Ranju Anand, Vice President – Schools, GEMS Education, said:
“The greater the adversity, the more we rose to the challenges to better prepare our students for the world.
“From classrooms to distance learning to blended learning, we are on a journey where we promote best practices and maximise growth.”
“This time last year, the pandemic unified teaching and technology. We invested heavily in online tools, with cyber safety as a top priority, and our teachers embraced the change, while our leaders provided training and motivation.”
Mrs Anand, in a final note to parents, said:
“We joined hands with our parents to complete the learning circle, and our students have been the winners.
The extraordinary achievements for children and older students this year, achievements against seemingly insurmountable odds, would never have been possible were it not for the extraordinary support of parents – and the children and students who were never ever less than inspiring in the face of such extraordinary adversity.
This open letter, which we have asked to be published by leading media, is our way of saying a beyond deserved, and very sincere, thank you to both our parents and students.
You have been amazing.
Roll on a more optimistic future and the better world that our students will play such an important part in creating.”
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