For many students the new school term will mean a return to distance learning. In a statement, Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek) have introduced full-time distance learning for the upcoming term as an option for all children in response to “a strong call from parents who prefer continuing distance learning for their children.”
Schools across the emirate said they are ready to ensure that pupils who continue to do schoolwork from afar will get the same access to education as their peers back in the classroom.
Laura Stevens, head of primary at Aspen Heights British School, said families who choose the distance learning programme, will be joining their peers in real-time during all lessons via Google Meet.
“They can then submit their learning on the platform Seesaw for marking,” she explained. “This allows the whole class to still work and interact together, which is important for learning as well as well-being. Secondary children will be following our distance learning programme, where all of their lessons will follow their usual school timetable and their lessons will be live using Google Meet and Google Classroom.”
Many children are already confident and experienced in using technology for learning, she explained, and the school has scheduled wellbeing sessions for all students every week, whether they are learning at home or in the classroom.
Dene Bright, principal at Reach British School, said the school has tried to remain consistent with the learning platforms, recognizing that what works for younger pupils might not be as beneficial to secondary school students. That will be an ongoing balancing act, he said as the school has recognized that “Nothing can replicate the social interactions that being in the classroom presents” But the school has seen “amazing academic progress and attainment” throughout distance learning, too.
“We strive to have these creative and interactive elements at the forefront of our planning and our lessons, so that we can ensure that our students feel connected to their fellow peers and are experiencing the social interaction that we all value,” he said.
Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and counseling psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, says education systems need to recognize the potential mental health implications of continued isolation for those students who are continuing with remote learning.
“Any long period of isolation can have a detrimental impact on young people’s mental health,” she says. “Studies show a link between feelings of loneliness and increased potential in developing depression. While we have all tried our best with remote learning, there are of course downsides to not being in the classroom.”
Many children may worry that they have lost friendships and are behind with schoolwork.
“Playing with friends and taking part in team sports is crucial for a child’s brain and language development, as well as being a great stress-reliever,” she said. “Many can become low in mood and generally feel at a loss with the situation and wonder when it will end. Anxiety and even depression can develop as a result.”
Education systems can combat potential pitfalls by increased interaction over digital platforms, one-to-one dialogue with pupils to check on how they are coping and providing guidance for teachers on how to spot a struggling pupil.
“A general awareness about how stressful this time is for many is key,” says Dharamshi. “Importantly, while we need to be physically distancing, we need to ensure that we are not socially distancing.”
Open and honest discussions with children is absolutely vital, she adds.
“Keep them aware of the situation and try to explain any developments in a clear manner. Reassure them that everyone is going through the same experience and they are not alone. Any feelings of anxiety are normal and to be expected in such unprecedented times, so normalize those feelings and express validation when your child is feeling anxious, unsure or fearful.
“Provide space when they need it, but also ensure you have created a safe environment for open dialogue as and when they are ready. Refrain from trying to solve the problem yourself, but rather accept the emotion and problem-solve with them. Communication is vital in helping to allay fears and concerns.”
Marie Byrne, a professional counsellor from Ireland who works in Dubai, said if pupils continue to attend school online, they may feel a sense of emotional loss for their social life.
“I interviewed two students who are not going back to school for at least a month. Their main parental fear is of a real outbreak of the virus in the school and a lack of confidence in the safety measures, but the students were both very sad about the loss of being part of the activities and the day to day life at school. It is a very difficult decision for families, teachers and schools.”
For those who are keeping their children at home, the Abu Dhabi Early Children Authority have also put together a compressive online program called ‘Parenting During a Pandemic and Beyond’, which aims to keep children happy, healthy and learning during and following a pandemic.
Jennifer Bell is an award-winning British journalist. She has worked for The National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates as well as the The Press, in the United Kingdom. Based in Abu Dhabi, she splits her time working for Arab News and PRWeek Middle East. She also contributes to regional titles including Gulf News, Arab Weekly, Arabian Business, and The Business Voice.