Educators are reassuring parents that rigorous plans are in place to safely welcome back students and help them them feel emotionally protected as they embark on the start of a new school year that will be like no other.
Abu Dhabi’s Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK), the emirate’s private schools regulator, has announced that most pupils aged between four and 11 will return to in-person lessons on Sunday, August 30.
Classes will resume for those in kindergarten and up to Grade 5 under the US system, and for FS2 (Reception) to Year 6 under the British one, while youngsters in all other years will start face-to-face lessons four weeks later.
Across the emirate, educators say they are ready to assess and address any disparities arising from months of digitally-based distance learning during lockdown as well as any stress and anxiety in children.
“It is imperative that throughout this process we are fully informing and engaging with our parent community,” said Dene Bright, principal at Reach British School. “Through continuous communication with parents we can ensure that children are diligently engaging with the lesson and successfully achieving their learning outcomes.”
Bright said the school’s priority is to provide the highest quality of learning, while ensuring the health and safety of students, staff and school community.
“Because we have the benefit of being part of International Schools Partnership (ISP), a global network of schools, we have had a team working on our re-opening plans all summer. We have written a school policy that outlines these measures such as social distancing, class sizes, track and trace policies and organising the school community and students in macro and micro bubbles to minimize the risk of infection.”
Laura Stevens, head of primary at Aspen Heights British School, also stressed the importance of communication.
“A family welcome pack has already been created and shared with all of our families, and we are continuing to make updates to this, based on the recent changes submitted from ADEK,” she said. “Our families with students in Foundation Stage until Year 6, will have the option to choose between face-to face teaching or distance learning.”
For face-to-face teaching, adjustments have been made to keep students safe, including flexible drop-off times, different points of entry and several subjects still delivered via distance learning.
“Throughout their time away from the classroom, students continued to progress and learning never stopped, so we are confident that our resilient students are excited about coming back to school,” said Stevens.
Angela Blair, head of Modern Foreign Languages at Hartland International School, said teachers at the Mohammed bin Rashid City school are not only responsible for implementing the new rules and regulations – they are responsible for helping students to understand and adhere to them.
“Not only do I need to settle them into secondary school, I need to reassure them that being in school is safe and that we as teachers are there not only to teach them, but to look after their well-being even more than we normally would.”
Blair acknowledged that everyone will be apprehensive about the new year.
“However I strongly believe that it is important for us to come back together as a community,” she said.
Marie Byrne, a professional counsellor from Ireland who works in Dubai, said schools must have measures in place to protect the mental health of students.
“Not being in their normal friendship groups because of reduced class sizes may cause isolation and loss of enjoyment in attending school. If they are not comfortable and secure in the environment, they will find concentrating on the learning difficult and may not make progress.”
Teachers should be on the lookout for those pupils struggling to readjust to returning to school full-time, said Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and counselling psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.
“During lockdown many children have become accustomed to always having their parents around,” she said. “They have become used to living in their own family bubble and they have adjusted to their new home-learning routine. Sudden changes, such as returning to the classroom and the potential stress this can cause, in addition to a fear of contracting the COVID virus, are risk factors for developing anxiety.
“Some children may struggle to embrace the new school environment. They may feel naturally wary of re-socializing with their peers and teachers, after months of being advised not to do that.”
Mental health wellness measures need to be put in place to safeguard children in the new school year, Dharamshi advises.
“Some simple steps that both parents and teachers should implement to help with the transition back to school include chatting about all the fun times they have had both in school in the past, before lockdown.
“Whether it’s assemblies, theatre productions, sports events, class trips – these happy memories will help them to recall school-life pre-lockdown and how much they enjoyed it all.”
Teachers should also set students small and achievable targets which they can focus on in the early days and weeks, says Dharamshi.
“These could include preparing their school stationery, laying out their uniform, and chatting about those subjects they enjoy the most. Gradually introducing old routines is key to helping children adjust at their own pace and reduce the likelihood of stress.”
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.