Vaccinated students head to UAE campuses as universities start new year

High vaccination rates and sanitisation routines make students feel safer

Ajman, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Anam Rizvi. News. A student goes through a sterilisation booth during her drive through graduation from Ajman University because of Covid-19. Wednesday, February 10th, 2021. Ajman. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Universities say most students are back for in-person lectures this month, after 18 months of pandemic disruption.

Deans spoke of their optimism and how high vaccination rates - 78 per cent of the UAE population have had two vaccine shots - will mark a return to normal this semester.

Vaccinations are helping students and staff to feel they can safely return to campus, universities said.

At Heriot-Watt University Dubai, almost 90 per cent of their 4,000 students are expected back on campus this week.

It is the largest cohort since the pandemic started … a significant increase from last year
Tadhg O'Donovan, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

Tadhg O’Donovan, acting deputy vice principal, said: “We now expect 90 per cent of our students to return to classes on campus this year.

“It is the largest cohort since the pandemic started … a significant increase from last year.

“There are some exceptions, such as some international students for whom travel restrictions have not yet been lifted.”

The university had initially switched to online learning when the pandemic started and later moved to a blended learning model in September 2020.

All universities in the UAE have had to implement specific protocols to keep staff and students safe.

"In a post-pandemic world, all educational institutions are faced with challenges such as timetabling to ensure classes are staggered. We also have to do crowd management in common areas such as entry points, cafeterias and in elevators,” Mr O’Donovan said.

DUBAI, UAE. January 21, 2015 -  Stock photograph of the campus interior of Hult International Business School in Dubai, January 21, 2015. (Photos by: Sarah Dea/The National, Story by: Ben Flanagan, Life)
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While preparing for the return of students, another challenge was creating a sanitisation roster and making sure classrooms were disinfected after each lecture, he said.

This term, almost all of the 14,000 students at UAE University are back on campus. They study in groups and at different times of the day or week to avoid large gatherings.

Emmanuel Rick Almeida, 20, an Indian third-year student at Murdoch University, attended online classes last year after his university moved to remote learning.

The cybersecurity and forensics student was excited to return to face-to-face classes this week.

"We did not have a choice last year because the university was offering online learning due to Covid-19 cases," Mr Almeida said. “I am back for in-person classes now."

The student has received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine and prefers to be on campus, describing online classes as boring.

“During in-person classes you can understand the topic better and ask questions and clear doubts."

Some universities are keeping online learning for situations when too many students would need to be in one room.

Dr Naeema Al Darmaki, dean of student life at UAE University, said that classes with more than 35 students were moved online automatically to keep students safe.

"Our concern comes from when students get together. We make sure we have allocated places in case someone has been a primary or secondary contact," Dr Al Darmaki said.

The university organises regular risk meetings and focuses on data collection to ensure safety, she said.

Dr Khaled Assaleh, vice chancellor for academic affairs at Ajman University.

At Ajman University, the number of students who returned to campus for face-to-face classes doubled this year.

Last year, only 10 per cent of the 6,000 students enrolled at the university attended in-person classes while up to 20 per cent of students were on campus this term.

"A university without students is missing a major component, which is the physical presence of students. It brings life to the university," said Dr Khaled Assaleh, vice chancellor for academic affairs at Ajman University.

This year, most practical sessions will be held on campus, but theoretical classes will stay predominantly online.

"Vaccination has definitely helped to get students back to campus. No one can enter the campus unless they are vaccinated or have an exemption," Dr Assaleh said.

The university encouraged students to get the Covid-19 vaccine and organised raffles and prizes for immunised students who reported their status on the university's system.

Canadian University Dubai has also seen more immunised students filling classrooms.

"As we continue to implement the health and safety guidelines of the Ministry of Education and other relevant national authorities, we are seeing student presence on campus increase on a daily basis," said Dr Rami El Khatib, vice president of student affairs at Canadian University Dubai.

"With this positive trend, we hope that at least 90 per cent of CUD students will be back to campus-based learning by the end of the current enrolment period."

University of Birmingham Dubai will be resuming classes on September 19 and is looking forward to welcoming larger numbers at the new campus.

"We are looking forward to a large number of new and returning students joining us on campus this term," said Chris Taylor, head of student recruitment at the university.

"We are in the fortunate position of having a brand-new campus, which will have a capacity of more than 2,000 students when it opens.

"The purpose-built facilities offer a huge amount of space, so we are in a good position to ensure all guidelines and regulations around social distancing are met."

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