COVID-19 UAE: Dubai parents appeal for PCR testing for private school students
Dubai parents have called for PCR testing in private schools following the recent rise in COVID figures in the UAE and across the world.
According to a social media poll of almost 1,000 UAE parents, 75% said they would prefer schools to require all students to have a PCR test prior to recommencing school, regardless of their travel history.
Dubai private schools did not require pupils to show proof of a valid negative PCR test prior to returning to face-to-face learning on 3 January, although schools were able to mandate this at their own discretion.
By contrast, negative PCR-test results were required for all students returning to school in Sharjah, and it has been reported that all students at Abu Dhabi schools, as well as those studying at public schools across the UAE – which are currently on distance learning for a fortnight – will need to show proof of a negative PCR once face-to-face learning recommences.
The social media poll of parents was held by Dubai-based social media bloggers Megan Kelly and Rebecca Davis on their Instagram profile ‘Just Two Mums’, prompted by the two mothers’ anxiety about the rising COVID figures and the looming spectre of distance learning once again rearing its head.
“I’m all for any regulations that will allow the kids to continue in face-to-face learning for as long as possible,” mother-of-three Megan told SchoolsCompared.com in an exclusive interview.
“Given the Omicron situation I would have loved everyone to test before going back, so that we know where we are when we are starting. In Denmark for example kids are tested for COVID once or twice a week to go to school as the norm. Although I don’t want that (at all), I think we need to find a way to live with this – and I just want my kids in school any way possible.”
When asked by SchoolsCompared.com whether they would consider mandatory PCR tests for private-school pupils in Dubai, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority – which regulates privates schools in Dubai – gave the following statement:
“We’re grateful to our education community for their resilience and support, and we remain focused on the wellbeing of families and school staff during this time. Thorough health and safety protocols remain in place for all private schools in Dubai. We are working closely with each school to ensure that these protocols are followed and that teaching and learning continues.“
Mother-of-three Megan says that she made the decision to give her own children PCR tests before they returned to face-to-face learning in Dubai on 3 January – even though it was not required by her children’s school – as an extra precaution. “We tested our kids to help keep others safe, and in the hope that other people might do the same. The less COVID going in, the less going out.”
Just as UAE schools were almost getting back to normal, the new and highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 – first identified in South Africa on November 24 2021 – has ripped through populations across the globe, causing chaos for the return to school after the Winter Break.
All UAE public schools have switched to online learning for the first two weeks of term as a precautionary measure, along with Abu Dhabi private schools, while Sharjah schools have given parents the option to choose distance learning if preferred.
Although all Dubai private schools were set to return to face-to-face learning on Monday 3 January 2021, many have needed to switch to online learning for the first few days or week due a significant rise in COVID-positive or close-contact cases amongst staff or students.
Dubai schools that have changed to distance learning in the first week of term after the Winter Break include 26 GEMS schools, Dubai English Speaking School and College, Kent College Dubai, Horizon English School and Victory Heights Primary School.
The last-minute announcements have caused a lot of disruption for Dubai parents, who have needed to arrange childcare and home-schooling arrangements with less than 24 hours of notice.
“We got the dreaded email last night,” said mum Rebecca Davis, whose school switched to online learning on Tuesday 4 January after only one day of face-to-face learning. “My nanny is not here this week (COVID), we are moving house, and now this as well. Part of me feels like it’s going to break.”
“Why do we have to choose between my children’s health or them getting an education?” asks Dubai-based parent and broadcaster Dina Butti. “We reluctantly sent my boys to school yesterday and then a number of students tested positive after one day! Now we’re back to online learning and quarantining.”
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Despite the disruption, parents seem to have a new perspective on distance learning compared to the panic that first hit at the beginning of the pandemic.
“I feel like everything in life is how you think about it, so positive thinking it is,” continues Rebecca. “My silver lining is not having to wake up when it’s still dark as home schooling gives me an extra hour in bed. My number one promise is not to stress; I know as soon as I start stressing I will start fighting with the kids, and then it all goes downhill. Been there, done that, and we all hated it.”
Mother-of-two, Emily, whose 7-year-old and 13-year-old children attend GEMS Dubai American Academy , told SchoolsCompared.com that she also has a stoic attitude, despite the last-minute notice she received about her children’s schooling going online. “It was very last-minute to find out only on Sunday evening that we would be going online the next day, but I don’t blame the school. The staff had to do PCR tests within 48 hours of the start of school. The results came back with too many positive cases. It’s so sad to think we are back to distance learning, but this time I am more prepared with all the school login details, I know how to use Zoom and all the different school platforms. Now I’m just hoping it’s not for more than a week!”
It is not only parents and students who are better prepared now, but schools and teachers too.
“The teacher for Grade 2 did an amazing job on such short notice. Detailed lessons for the day were sent for use on Monday, with Zoom links for every lesson. The kids are all together ‘in class’ on Zoom. It’s like they know how to do it now; a been-there, done that kind of attitude!”.
Nevertheless, the clear consensus amongst most parents we spoke to is that face-to-face learning is preferable wherever possible. Gemma Plowman, a stay-at-home mum of a seven-year-old and five-year-old in Dubai, says that she is happy her children have been able to return to school in person:
“I was a little concerned with the rising numbers of COVID cases and the children going back to school for face-to-face learning due to the rapid spread. Although I felt reassured by the fact that the new variant seems to have more mild symptoms.
“Our school is not at maximum capacity, which means smaller classes and more space to move freely. I’m sure they will be taking all the precautions and all rules are adhered to in order to keep our children safe.
“I prefer my kids to have face-to-face learning as I feel they thrive better being around their peers and interacting with their teachers in a classroom environment. If we need to switch to home learning then obviously we will, but I am hoping this won’t need to be the case if everyone follows the rules and keeps their children home if showing the slightest of symptoms.”
To test or not to test?
PCR testing is a good way to keep the community safe, but it should be done at the right time, says Dr Rania Ayat Hawayek Specialist Paediatrician, Medical Director & Owner at Circle Care Clinic in Dubai.
“I think it would have been a good idea to have all students returning to face-to-face learning undergo PCR tests, whether they were travelling or not. It is not quite right to assume that just the people travelling were exposed to COVID. Having blanket PCR testing for everyone starting school, whether they were staff or students and whether they travelled or not, would have perhaps made the start of school slightly safer.”
However, Dr Rania makes the point that testing staff or students very soon after they have travelled does not always pick up the positive cases that might have been contracted during the day of travel itself.
“People are highly exposed during the day of travel, especially on the plane. We are often seeing that it’s only four or five days after exposure that people are showing COVID symptoms, so only PCR testing on the day of arrival would miss these cases.”
Nevertheless, Dr Rania believes that it is not necessary to PCR test every student who is set to return to face-to-face learning if they have been distance learning at home for two weeks or more. “As long people who have been on online learning have stayed at home and been safe with their social interactions, once the two weeks of online learning is over they are safe enough to go back to school. But if any of them decided to remain in their holiday destinations and travel back within those two weeks, they should then do a PCR test five days or more later, to make sure they don’t turn positive after their exposure on the plane, or on the day of travel.”
The logistics of requiring all students to undergo PCR tests before returning to face-to-face learning would be challenging, says Naveed Iqbal, Principal/ CEO of GEMS Metropole School – Motor City.
“Asking all students to complete a PCR test, whilst in principle seems to be a good idea, it would be very difficult logistically to manage and therefore, as a school we are not planning to do so unless there is a change in regulations which expects this.
“As a school we are requesting strict adherence to the guidelines and recommendations to ensure a circuit breaker and slow down the spread of any transmission. It is clear from the rise in cases in our school community that the Omicron variant is more transmissible than previous variants, so we are certainly looking at ways to help reduce its spread.
“One example of this for our school is to recommend any students who will be coming into school to take board examinations such as A level exams; to complete a PCR test wherever possible, this will help to keep our community safe and reduce any spread, as well as following all other guidelines and protocols. Our parent community for exam years have generally been supportive of this request and appreciate the intent to keep us all safer across school.”
Sarah O’Regan, Principal/ CEO GEMS Wellington Academy – Silicon Oasis agrees that it is more important for schools to focus on maintaining safety measures on site in order to keep students and staff as safe as possible.
“We would manage the logistics of student PCR testing if this were to be mandatory, but if not, we would not enforce this at school level.
“The city is currently managing high volumes of PCR testing, and whilst this does identify positive people who can then isolate, if we asked students to take a PCR, this is only accurate on the test day, it doesn’t mean the student may not be positive the next day.
“It therefore remains important for our school community to focus on preventing cross-infection by adhering to all expected safety measures whilst on-site, making wise choices about behaviours off-site, and ensuring people remain away from school if they have any COVID symptoms or feel they may have been in contact with a positive case.”
The option for schools to move to distance learning has been a welcome element of flexibility, says Karim Murcia, Principal/ CEO of GEMS Al Barsha National School. “We are committed to adhering to all precautionary measures during onsite learning in order to safeguard our students, families and staff and have welcomed the autonomy provided to schools at the start of Term 2 to move to remote learning if it is in the best interest of their communities.”
Pumped up precautions: Which emirates require student PCR testing and which don’t?
Education regulators across all of the emirates have pumped up their precautions following the rise in COVID numbers:
Ministry of Education
All UAE public schools have switched to distance learning as a precaution for the first two weeks of Term 2, following a Ministry of Education directive.
Before returning to in-person classes, all students must show proof of a valid negative PCR test result. The test must be taken no more than 96 hours before entering the school, and those who test positive will not be admitted entry.
The ministry said parents entering schools must show proof of green pass status on the Al Hosn app.
PCR testing in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi’s private schools have switched to distance learning during the first two weeks of the second term from January 3, in line with the announcement from the emirate’s Emergency, Crisis and Disasters Committee NCEMA.
During the fortnight period, PCR testing campaigns will be ramped up for staff and the situation will be monitored in preparation for the return to physical classes, authorities said.
It has not been confirmed officially whether or not PCR testing will be required when pupils return to classes, although this is the case for Abu Dhabi public schools, and was the case for private schools in the emirate when the new academic year began in September 2021.
PCR testing in Sharjah
Sharjah schools have returned to face-to-face learning but have allowed students to opt for distance learning if preferred. The Sharjah Private Education Authority announced on Monday January 3 that it is up to each school’s principal to decide to switch to remote learning for up to two days. It also stated: “The distance learning option is available for parents until further notice.”
All school staff and students from age 12 years and above are required to present a negative PCR test result, taken within 96 hours to enter the school premises after the end of winter break, urging all school staff to take the booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.
PCR testing in Dubai
Private schools’ regulators in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah have allowed a return to face-to-face schooling, while making distance learning an option for students with COVID symptoms.
PCR testing was not compulsory for students returning to face-to-face schooling, although schools were able to require it at their own discretion.
As a precautionary measure, all trips, events and internal gatherings in Dubai private schools – such as assemblies and performances – must be put on hold. Extra-curricular activities taking place at the school, either within or outside of school hours, must be put on hold. Cafeterias and canteens must be closed.
Students who have Covid symptoms must not go to school. Instead, schools must give students with Covid symptoms the option of distance learning. Students may return to school when they no longer show any Covid symptoms. A PCR test is not required.