Abu Dhabi schools with the best vaccination rates will be able to end physical distancing rules and allow pupils to go outside without wearing masks under a Covid-19 safety scheme due to come into force in the second term of the academic year.
Abu Dhabi's Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek) has announced protocols for the Blue Schools initiative, which will permit private and charter schools with higher vaccination levels to gradually ease coronavirus restrictions.
A colour-coded tier system will be established - based on the percentage of the school population immunised - that will determine the extent to which safety procedures can be lifted.
Vaccination rates for individual schools will be published every two weeks on Adek's website.
Officials said the scheme, approved by the Abu Dhabi Emergency Crisis and Disasters Committee, was a roadmap to lead the education sector back to full recovery.
But Adek stressed children aged under 16 - who are not mandated to receive the vaccine by the authority - should not be "stigmatised" for not being inoculated.
Instead, the Blue Schools scheme aims to encourage all age groups to be immunised in order to accelerate a return to normality.
“Our policy is designed to enable an efficient and effective implementation of the Blue Schools Initiative and provides full transparency to our education community as we strive to see schools return to normalcy at the earliest opportunity,” said Amer Al Hammadi, Adek undersecretary.
“The policy mandates schools to establish clear anti-discrimination and anti-stigmatisation guidelines in line with the values of the UAE. Schools are strictly prohibited from requiring the mandatory vaccination of students below the age of 16."
Adek said all staff and pupils aged 16 and over had been vaccinated, "leaving pupils under 16 as the only primarily unvaccinated group since vaccination for this category remains voluntary according to government protocols"
"The Blue Schools Initiative recognises vaccination as the key path to recovery and encourages immunisation of this remaining group, increasing their protection against Covid-19 and minimising the impact of possible infections," read the statement.
School encourages vaccine drive
About 20 per cent of the pupils at International Indian School Abu Dhabi have been vaccinated.
Beno Kurien, principal at International Indian School Abu Dhabi, was happy as the vaccination rate had increased by four per cent in the past week.
"We are continuously having one-to-one meetings with parents and our counsellors are holding awareness programmes for parents. We are motivating them to get their children vaccinated,” said Dr Kurien.
"We are finding it very hard to reach the 85 per cent required to be in the blue school tier. But, parent’s attitudes are changing and we hope to reach the blue school level."
About half of the 850 pupils enrolled at the school are studying online, with many parents waiting to get their children inoculated when they make the switch to in-person learning.
Vaccinated pupils in higher grades are back for in-person lessons, but many younger pupils have not been immunised.
Counsellors at the school are using research to inform parents that the Covid-19 vaccine is safe for their children.
Vaccinations are key to help get things back to normal, said Dr Kurien.
"All our staff are vaccinated and once pupils are vaccinated the entire school environment will be safe,” he said.
"We can have collaborative learning, pupils can get back to normal life, and social activities can resume at the school."
How the Blue Schools scheme works
As vaccination rates increase within a school community, a school will advance through four colour-coded tiers: Orange (less than 50 per cent of school population vaccinated), Yellow (50-64 per cent), Green (65-84 per cent), and Blue (85 per cent and above), and will enjoy additional privileges per tier.
The benefits include the relaxation of physical distancing and mask-wearing protocols, and will allow for increases in classroom and bus capacity, the reintroduction of field trips, on-campus events, and extra-curricular activities, including team and contact sports, as well as inter and intra-school sports competitions.
If a school's vaccination rate drops, moving them down a tier, they will maintain their colour status unless they fall more than 10 percentage points below the threshold. So Blue Schools, for example, must remain at a level of at least 75 per cent, having previously reached 85 per cent or more.
The ratio is calculated based on the school population aged three and above, apart from those with exemptions reflected on the Al Hosn app.
Benefits for Blue Schools
Once a school reaches blue status, they will be able to ease or lift the following Covid-19 rules:
*Pupils can remove masks outdoors
*Physical distancing measures for pupils can be removed
*Allow all field trips (also for Green Schools)
*Bus capacity back to 100 per cent (also for Green Schools)
*Duration of school closure for Covid-19 outbreak capped at seven days (also for Green Schools)
*Class/bubble sizes set at 25 (kindergarten to foundation stage) and 30 (Grade 1/Year 2 and above)
*Events such as school assemblies, graduation ceremonies are permitted
*inter-school activities, such as sports competitions, allowed with other Blue Schools (such activities contained to the school approved at Green level)
Vaccination rates displayed online
Adek said school vaccination rates, and their corresponding colour tier, will be published on its website.
Schools will only be able to activate the benefits belonging to their group following the publication of their tier or formal communication with Adek.
Pupils at Abu Dhabi’s private and charter schools returned to physical education lessons, sports, and extra-curricular events in August.
Children's play areas, common areas and canteens were also reopened.