Dubai private schools will have all pupils back in classrooms this Sunday, for the first time in 18 months.
Parents and children should expect a few changes as distance learning comes to an end in the emirate.
Schools have stepped up preventive measures and introduced programmes to fill learning gaps as quickly as possible.
Some have introduced counselling sessions for children overwhelmed by being back in school after so long.
“It will be a delicate dance as infections have not ceased completely. We will be on our toes,” said Rashmi Nandkeolyar, principal at Delhi Private School Dubai.
“This is a step in the right direction and this is back to normal as much as possible.”
Here are some of the changes parents can expect at schools in the emirate.
One-metre distance between two pupils, and bigger classes
The major change this academic year is that all private school pupils must be back for face-to-face learning by October 3 in Dubai, except in exceptional circumstances.
A one-metre distance between pupils was recommended by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, the emirate’s private education regulator, as term started in August.
Until the last term, pupils in a class had to maintain a 1.5-metre distance.
As more pupils return, class sizes at many schools in the emirate will return to pre-pandemic numbers.
Although many schools will have classes of 30 children in higher grades, primary school pupils will be divided into bubbles of 15.
Exemptions from face-to-face learning: who can get these and how?
Pupils can be exempt from in-person classes only under exceptional circumstances.
Children who have a medical condition or are immune-compromised, pupils who have Covid-19, and children who are stuck outside the UAE and cannot travel back due to restrictions may apply.
“Schools are working towards enabling a smooth transition to full face-to-face learning and any exemptions are offered on a case-by-case basis,” said the KHDA in a statement.
Authority approval is not required for requests for distance learning. School leaders can deny or approve requests depending on whether the exemption requirements have been met.
Class groups or grades may still temporarily switch to distance learning if cases of Covid-19 are detected.
Lalitha Suresh, principal at Gems Our Own Indian School, said the school was helping pupils with medical conditions to obtain exemptions.
Around 50 to 60 of 3,737 pupils enrolled at the school have applied for exemptions.
Ms Suresh said the pupil's doctor needed to provide a medical report which was then approved by the school doctor.
Well-being and academic support for pupils
Schools will focus on the well-being and mental health of pupils, and help them catch up with their education.
Some have organised well-being programmes, while others have pupil ambassadors or counsellors so children can get help, if - for example - they feel anxious at being surrounded by hundreds of children.
Many pupils have not attended in-person classes in 18 months and may have struggled emotionally or with their studies.
At The Indian High Group of Schools, more than 10,000 pupils will return to in-person lessons on Sunday for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak.
“All this while children have been hearing, stay away, don’t go to places and suddenly they are coming back to school. We have a dedicated programme for younger pupils where we will involve children and parents,” said Punit MK Vasu, the group's chief executive.
The group has chosen pupil ambassadors at its schools for peer-to-peer support, and younger children have access to counselling. Pupils who have struggled to keep up while they studied remotely will also receive help.
“We have to find out what the gaps are in pupils' learning in this period of time. When you are having online studies there is a certain inaccuracy,” said Ms Nandkeolyar.
“There may be children who have learning gaps. We will find out through lots of data analysis and create an action plan for them.”
Delhi Private School has planned online competitions to help ease pupils back in to school life, and children will be given space to express how they are feeling.
Staggered entry and exit times
Many school in Dubai have decided to stagger entry and exit times, and increase the number of entry points to avoid overcrowding.
Some schools have set up waiting areas for parents just off campus, to limit the chances of Covid-19 transmission.
Extra-curricular activities and annual programmes resume
Extra-curricular activities returned in September, and many schools will resume activities on a grander scale once all pupils return.
“Extra-curricular activities are back in a very minor way but we are planning to bring them back in full swing from October,” said Shiny Davison, director of learning at Gulf Model School.
Pupils at Delhi Private School Dubai will participate at Expo 2020 Dubai. Its principal said it was working to find a way to have singing and dancing with social distancing.
Ms Nandkeolyar said the school may choose to hold annual school celebration days in-person with pupils, but ask parents to watch it virtually.
Gems Our Own Indian School will create a movie of its annual programme performance which parents will be able to view.