COVID-19: A year since schools had first closed, pupils and educators in UAE reflect on challenges faced

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Clockwise from top left: Ereeni Amelia Warriner, Hanna Abdul Majeed, Ria Moopen, Matthew Morris, Salma Hilal and Dr Ishani Roy Chowdhury.
Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: A year since the first-ever school closures in the UAE, forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s biggest school group, Dubai-based GEMS Education, is reflecting back on the challenges faced by students and teachers.

In March 2020, schools were asked to close campus and move to full distance learning as a precaution against the virus. The unprecedented shift meant students and teachers had to adjust to full online education for the first time. They faced, to varying degrees, issues regarding technology, content and schedules. It was also a difficult time emotionally and psychologically, pupils and educators said.

Return to ‘new normal’

At the end of August 2020, after the long summer break, most schools started reopening again under new government health and safety rules for COVID-19, which included PCR tests, temperature checks, masks, social distancing, and many other precautionary measures. While a few schools welcomed back all its students, most schools adopted a blended model, mixing online and face-to-face classes. Recently, schools in all emirates except Abu Dhabi and Dubai, were directed to move to full distance learning until the end of this term or until further notice.

Starting Sunday, GEMS Education — which operates over 40 schools in the UAE, as well as schools in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Europe, Africa, India, Southeast Asia and North America — is launching its weeklong initiative to discuss ‘Education During COVID — One Year Since Shutdown’.

Challenges faced by students

Salma Hilal, Year 12, GEMS Wellington Academy, Al Khail, Dubai: Like most other students, Salma found it “very hard” getting used to the remote learning system “so fast and at such short notice”. She and her peers had already been using an online platform, but “were suddenly introduced to [another platform], assignments and video conferencing”.

She added: “Thankfully, we were given lots of video guidance and support throughout the spring break last year to ensure we knew exactly what was happening. We were also very lucky to have [another online system] in advance of the pandemic, where all our homework, assessments, grades and house points are tracked, so we were already almost fully functioning online before the distance learning period.”

However, some subjects, such as art, were harder to learn online. “I found subjects like art more difficult without the use of specialised facilities and equipment, and because [stay-at-home orders] happened so quickly I was unable to go out and buy new equipment. However, I also think this was a huge learning experience — I developed skills in using my iPad for fine art, for example.”

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She also found it “very difficult” to be missing out on the social aspects of school, but she felt that “the ‘we’re all in this together’ approach was embedded throughout the school and the entire country. We found strength in this and, ultimately, didn’t feel so alone”.

Ereeni Warriner, Grade 5, GEMS World Academy, Dubai: Ereeni missed her friends and being physically in school. “I also missed doing sports and activities, PE, art and all the things that are good about being in the school building. Learning and only using technology wasn’t always easy — sometimes there were glitches and Wi-Fi issues at home,” she added.

Now that Ereeni is back in the brick-and-mortar classroom, she feels “happy because at least we can see our friends and teachers. We can sit at our desks and learn face-to-face. It is annoying to have to wear a mask all day, but at least we are in school. Social distancing is hard because we have to stay two metres away from our friends and the teacher”.

Hanna Abdul Majeed, Grade 11, GEMS Millennium School, Sharjah: Hanna, who is distance learning, also missed the lack of interaction with fellow classmates, which she described as one of the “the most difficult aspects to deal with regarding distance education”. She added: “Moreover, since much control over the time one spends has been handed over to students, my routines often get disrupted due to lack of motivation to end meetings or pause videos.”

Hanna said understanding concepts and lessons being taught in class did not prove to be a major difficulty, both back then and now. With regards to lack of social interactions and time management, she has gotten used to the ways the pandemic has affected these aspects, and she is “still striving to achieve optimum productivity in the present situation”.

Stock online class
A child attends an online class. Picture for illustrative purposes only.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Ria Moopen, Grade 12, GEMS Millennium School, Sharjah: For Ria, staying at home brought on “concomitant isolation, which did strain many friendships in the first few months”. She added that “it was difficult keeping in contact with acquaintances when you don’t anymore meet them five days a week. This was coupled with having to grow accustomed to an entirely new and unusual routine that revolved around me staying put at home”.

Speaking about how she is getting along now, Rai, who is distance learning, said: “I’d say I’m quite comfortable with the routine I’ve built for myself over the year. Video conferencing platforms have assuaged any inkling of loneliness I harboured. In all honesty, it is a lot more convenient as well, because there is no travel needed to ‘meet’ the people I want to talk to.”

How teachers adjusted to Work From Home

Matthew Morris, Secondary Vice Principal, Teacher of Year 10 to 13 Music, GEMS Wellington Academy, Al Khail, Dubai: For Morris, the biggest challenge was adapting so swiftly to the change. “Due to the nature of the pandemic, bold and decisive actions were taken with very short notice, and although it was absolutely the right decision, it came as quite a shock to all of us,” he said.

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Morris led the secondary school’s COVID-19 response, but had the additional challenge of teaching a number of classes alongside. “I was in quite a unique position as both school leader and teacher. This helped me to truly reflect on what would or would not work so that we could give absolute clarity to the entire school community.”

The school is providing fully-blended provision, teaching both students in the classroom and students at home. Most of the students have now returned to school, but a few have opted for distance learning.

Angela Roberts

Angela Roberts, Grade 3 Classroom Teacher and Team Leader, GEMS World Academy, Dubai: Like many other teachers, Work From Home was a unique challenge for Roberts. “Juggling the needs of all learners — some in different time zones — I never imagined I would be teaching a class of children from my dining room table using my laptop and iPad. In the early days and weeks, the feeling of isolation, being detached from the school community was a difficult adjustment,” she said.

Roberts, who is doing blended teaching for her grade 3 class, added: “I am used to having my class and colleagues physically around me, but suddenly we were thrust into a world of [online meetings] and online calls. The fear of the unknown was difficult to process, along with the worry of loved ones, being so far from home.”

Dr Ishani Roy Chowdhury, Chemistry (Grades 10, 11 and 12), GEMS Millennium School, Sharjah: After Dr Chowdhury overcame the initial challenge of learning to access various online platforms and tools, she felt glad that the learning process was able to continue despite the world facing a “once-in-a-century pandemic”. She said: “That I could still connect with the students and take them through their academic journey felt futuristic and gave me hope every single day.”

Dr Chowdhury has done both blended and full online teaching in the past year. While in-class teaching and learning has been “restricted”, she has still been interacting with students face-to-face for their laboratory work.

Akanksha Sharma

Akanksha Sharma, Grade 7 and 8 English teacher, GEMS Millennium School, Sharjah: Beyond the usual challenges of full distance teaching, there were some “latent challenges” as well, said Sharma. These included encouraging students to use information and technology “constructively”, guiding them to maintain a positive attitude towards the new way of learning, and ensuring that the “intrinsic motivation” remains throughout the class.

“Teachers faced the dual challenge of not just preparing themselves every day for online lessons by making them more innovative, result-oriented and interesting, but also being a catalyst in determining the learning of students,” she added.

One year on — a principal’s perspective

Kristen Murphy, Primary Principal at GEMS World Academy, Dubai

What is the sentiment now among students, teachers and parents regarding face-to-face classes?

“At GEMS World Academy, Dubai, we have been fortunate to be able to have all students on-site for the majority of this academic year. Supporting everyone’s well-being has been a priority for us, and I think our students, teachers and parents have appreciated that.”

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What is your outlook for the remainder of the academic year, regarding safety measures in place for the safe return and reintegration of students?

Kristen Murphy

“My hope is that everything we have done this year will set us up for a safe return to ‘normal’ school life. I feel we are more than ready to start the reintegration process for our students. I look forward to hopefully being able to welcome parents back into our Academy. Our students and staff have done a remarkable job coping with this school year and will continue to safely follow protocols until guidelines change.”

How was the support from government officials?

“As a school, we greatly appreciate the support of Knowledge and Human Development Authority and Dubai Health Authority. They have regularly dropped in to check regulations and guidelines are in place. They have been consistent with their messages and support, and we appreciate how difficult this year has been for governing bodies — something that should be recognised by all.”

Health & Safety

Before schools reopened in August 2020, they were informed about new health and safety measures that had to be in place for the safe return to face-to-face classes. These “protocols for reopening” included PCR tests, temperature checks, masks, social distancing, and many other precautionary measures.

More than six months down the line, adhering to the measures has become second-nature for the school community, said Paul Slater, Vice President — Operations and Health, Safety and Environment, GEMS Education.

‘Daily norm’

“GEMS schools have been managing the COVID-19 pandemic exceptionally well. Safety measures such as face masks, social distancing and hand sanitising have become part of the daily norm across our network. Teachers and students have adapted positively to the challenges that the pandemic has brought about,” he added.

Vaccine drive

In addition to some of these fundamental principles, a GEMS-wide vaccination campaign has “ensured as many eligible staff as possible receive the COVID-19 vaccine”. The group also has “robust medical and emergency procedures in place, as well as a robust contact tracing process”. Slater added: “All of these combined mean our schools are safe for students, teachers and support staff …”

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A grade 11 teacher teaches instructs both in-class students and distance learners through live streamed lessons at GEMS World Academy Dubai.
Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Declining cases

Speaking about the outlook for the remainder of the academic year and for the new school year, Slater said the outlook “remains very positive. We have all observed the recent reduction in COVID-19 cases across the UAE, and I am pleased to say that we are observing the same trend across our schools, with the number of positive cases and close contacts declining significantly”.

Keeping the guard up

He added: “It appears that we are starting to see the impact of the countrywide vaccination drive of the UAE authorities. As more and more people are vaccinated, the hope is that we will drive down infection rates. Having said that, we must remain vigilant: the pandemic is not over yet and we must not let our guards down.”

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