The UAE’s roads will be busier on Monday, as schoolchildren start returning to classrooms, following the decision to bring them back after three weeks of distance learning for pupils in Abu Dhabi and at government schools in the Emirates. But in a sign of the difficult times in which we live thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, getting back to school resulted in more delays than simply traffic. In Abu Dhabi, long queues were reported throughout the emirate’s PCR testing facilities, because pupils required a negative result within 96 hours of going back. They will need to test every fortnight according to the guidance.
While these measures remain necessary, they are a reminder of the significant disruption pupils have experienced during the past two years. With no warning, they traded the classroom for a computer screen; the playground for the limits of their own homes.
The scale of this global transition was vast. In a 2020 report by Unicef, the UN’s agency for children, 90 per cent of the 188 countries surveyed adopted some form of digital or remote learning policy.
This was not just a trauma for pupils, but the entire network of adults that support them through education. If learning via a screen seems hard, teaching and managing a class of thirty requires adapting to also. For millions of teachers the world over, there was no choice in the matter. Suddenly their vocation, which involves not just educating children but also safeguarding them, was carried out at a distance. On the opposite end, parents were on call for extra periods of child care, disrupting employment and generally adding more stress at a time of uncertainty. This took a particular toll on women, who carried a disproportionate burden of care the world over.
Nonetheless, today will still be a welcome return for most children in Abu Dhabi, specifically those in kindergarten/foundation stage, years 2-6 and year 13, university students and anyone preparing for international exams. The rest will return on January 31.
Today’s resumption of in-person teaching also falls on a symbolic date. January 24 is the UN’s International Day of Education. It is a moment to reflect on the work of those in the education sector, as well as the many people who are unfairly excluded from it. According to the organisation, almost 260 million children around the world do not attend school, 4 million of whom are refugees.
This year’s theme is “Changing Course, Transforming Education”. The past few years have seen the biggest change of course to schooling in generations, and the UN stresses that “the pandemic is a stark reminder of our fragilities and interconnectedness”. In the face of this major change, the organisation has called for a worldwide transformation, built on “solidarity and co-operation”.
Highlighting the need for global action is the right thing to do. While the pandemic has disrupted almost every classroom on the planet, the nature of the disruption differs starkly from country to country. For those in wealthier ones, mask-wearing and regular testing remain somewhat inconvenient, but pale in comparison to challenges elsewhere. For example, more than 460 million schoolchildren are unable to access remote learning programmes offered by their governments, typically due to poverty and bad internet connection.
As the UAE returns to its secure, flexible and high-quality schools, pupils and parents should remember all those in education who are less fortunate. And as an unequal global recovery gathers pace, particular help should be given to those whose ticket to a better life has been disrupted most during the past two years.