Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 29 October 2020

'Back to school' has a whole new meaning after Covid-19

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , August 9 – 2020 :- ‘We Miss You’ message on the boundary wall of the Dubai British School in Jumeirah Park in Dubai. New Covid safety setup in different areas of the school such as hand sanitizer, safety message, social distancing stickers pasted on the floor, thermal cameras will be installed at the entrance of the school. School will open on 30th August. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Online/Instagram. Story by Kelly
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , August 9 – 2020 :- ‘We Miss You’ message on the boundary wall of the Dubai British School in Jumeirah Park in Dubai. New Covid safety setup in different areas of the school such as hand sanitizer, safety message, social distancing stickers pasted on the floor, thermal cameras will be installed at the entrance of the school. School will open on 30th August. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Online/Instagram. Story by Kelly

At the end of a long summer break, it is normal for pupils to admit that they are rather looking forward to going back to school. This month, though, it is not simply a matter of looking forward to it. In the case of my teenage daughter, it has become a scarcely concealed desperation to return.

When I brought home news of a survey I had received from the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge, about whether as a parent I preferred schooling to restart with continued online learning or with an option of blended learning – some online and some at school – her response was immediate: “Blended, blended…”

That’s partly because she’s looking forward to engaging with others of her own age again, even though she’s due to start at a new school. We’ve adhered pretty strictly to social-distancing guidelines so for months she’s seen virtually none of her friends, except online. She’s also looking forward to getting back to her studies and interacting with teachers again. Perhaps, to be honest, she’s also getting a little tired of housework.

With a little over two weeks to go before the new school year begins, however it is structured, I hope that some of that enthusiasm to get back to work survives for the teachers.

For both sets, pupils and teachers, it has been a difficult time since schools closed their doors in March. Even as most worked hard to adjust to online learning, there will be a long-lasting impact on the education of a generation.

It is not just a matter of being able to engage with teachers. Working alongside in person and competing with classmates is important as well. For some, of course, before going back to school there is still the nervous wait for results of the assessments by external examiners that are replacing the conventional exams.

The government's approach has been to keep children out of school to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In the early weeks, with thousands of cases, that was a sensible approach. Now, however, the number of new cases recorded daily is trending downwards so the gradual return makes sense, especially given the preparations and safety measures schools have put in place.

In my other home of Jersey, schools reopened in June before shutting again late last month for summer holidays, as the number of cases was small and under control. A virtual lockdown on visitors to the island was adopted early on. In announcing the reopening of schools, Jersey’s Government said: “The risks to the health, welfare and education of our children from a continued absence from school now outweigh the risks from Covid-19.”

Here in the UAE, we’re not quite at the point to be able to adopt the same approach but we’re getting there.

I am a great believer in the saying “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. In education, physical exercise is a key part of both mental and psychological well-being

It is worth noting, though, the consideration given in Jersey to the health and welfare of students as well as to their education.

Amongst those families who have adhered to the UAE’s distancing regulations and guidelines, children will have missed the socialising that is a part of growing up. Very young children may have to learn all over again how to settle into a school environment. Older ones may have spent too much time glued to the television or worse, to social media, picking up all sorts of ideas that benefit neither their health nor their welfare.

I am a great believer in the saying “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. In education, physical exercise is a key part of both mental and psychological well-being. But perhaps only few will have played any sport over the summer. Physical fitness is likely to be at a low ebb.

As we look forward to schools reopening, even on a “blended” basis, I hope that due recognition will be given to the fact that it is going to be hard for pupils to settle down to the normal process of learning again. Many will have fallen behind, even in those schools that have excelled in providing online learning. Catching up may take time. Some may need to take a few steps backwards and then start to move forward again.

Parents will have faced their own challenges over the past few months. Virtually everyone's lifestyle will have changed, even among those who have retained their jobs. As imposing as those hurdles have been and continue to be, I hope that we can all remember that our children have faced unaccustomed challenges as well. They, too, might need a bit of time as they return to non-virtual classrooms and something resembling normal education.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture

Updated: August 12, 2020 05:33 PM

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