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Head teachers in the UAE have told of their pride at building new schools while facing the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
From recruiting staff to coping with coronavirus cases, last-minute changes in construction plans and postponed opening dates, new schools have had to overcome adversity to welcome pupils.
As the UAE travels cautiously down the road to recovery, the mood of those in the education sector has lifted.
The start of a new term at the end of last month brought new hope as schools welcomed pupils in large numbers.
Raha International School opened a second campus in Khalifa City, Abu Dhabi, which has a capacity of 3,000 pupils.
Iain Colledge, its principal, said opening on time was a "remarkable feat".
“We battled with Covid-19 cases, curfews, our construction company not being able to travel from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, job losses throughout the community, continual uncertainty, losing 20 per cent of the land at the eleventh hour, and the particularly huge challenge of trying to market a construction site during a pandemic,” he said.
Phase one of the Abu Dhabi school complex opened in September 2020 with 300 pupils, while the second phase opened for the new academic year, with 720 pupils in years one to eight now enrolled.
“Building on time and exceeding target numbers has been a remarkable feat from a team who have been exceptional every step of the way, especially when, left and right, schools are closing their doors, downsizing, or putting expansion plans on hold until the pandemic is over,” Mr Colledge said.
Building the school took close to 16 months, with Covid-19 cases at the construction company just one of the many obstacles the principal and his team had to navigate.
“More than anything it [the pandemic] stretched us to our limits.
“The building was on a tight schedule and there were some construction delays,” he said.
Being flexible was crucial as plans changed rapidly.
“Towards the end of the design process when we were close to signing off, the municipality told us that part of the plot was going to be used for an electrical substation and we had to work with our architects in Singapore to rapidly redesign the plot. We did that in two weeks,” Mr Colledge said.
He advised schools to ensure buildings were ready a few months, not a few weeks, before opening dates.
New Dubai school bounces back from delays
The Apple International Community School opened in Karama, Dubai, this month and has enrolled more than 200 students, while 75 staff members are employed.
It was scheduled to open in September 2020 but its opening date had to be postponed by a year due to the pandemic.
Nabil Lahir, chief executive of Leams Education, which runs four schools in the UAE including The Apple International Community School, said that although the school building was ready on time, the pandemic had an impact on enrolling pupils.
“In terms of admission, the pandemic impact was there but at a later stage, once the economy improved, the enrolment turned out well," said Mr Lahir.
“It was a tight schedule for us as we finalised on the property in February and we started work immediately. By March things got stuck with travel restrictions.
“We were hoping things would get better but later realised it would not be advisable to open at the time as many schools were moving online.
“There were a number of challenges such as recruiting people on time.”
Mr Lahir said the key to opening a school during a pandemic was to adapt quickly to any issues.
He is now eager to set out his vision for the school to the public.
“Now, we need to do a lot more marketing and campaigning about the school, while earlier it wasn’t like that,” he said.
“We are an affordable-fee school but have seen that we need to offer something more.”
The school is providing books and a set of uniforms free of charge this year.
Pupils will also have access to free robotics classes.
Fees at The Apple International Community School range from Dh14,500 to Dh17,000 after a discount of 19 to 22 per cent.
Craig Lamshed is principal at The Royal Grammar School Guildford Dubai, which launched in time for the new term.
"We are very proud to have opened the fully completed facility. It is an exceptional campus that will go on to house over 2,000 pupils," said Mr Lamshed.
"When we opened admissions for RGS Guildford Dubai in January, we were still unsure what the next academic year would look like. Would we be allowed to teach on campus? Would we need to focus on distance learning?
"We feel extremely fortunate to be back to 100 per cent on-campus learning and being able to have lunch together in our dining hall, offering internal and external extra-curricular activities."
Ten new private schools are set to open in Dubai during the 2021-22 academic year, and many have started welcoming pupils this term.
This will increase the number of schools in Dubai to 220 and create 15,000 new school places.
More than 286,500 pupils already study at private schools in the emirate.