Teachers and pupils at one of Dubai's largest private schools were in jubilant mood on Sunday as they marked the end of distance learning – and another major step forward in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
Most of the emirate's school population of close to 300,000 pupils, barring those with exemptions, headed back to classrooms on a landmark day for the education sector.
High vaccination rates among pupils and school staff – figures released last month showed 96 per cent of Dubai's private schoolteachers had been vaccinated and 70 per cent of children aged between 12 and 17 had received coronavirus shots – coupled with declining infection numbers have ensured return to the pre-pandemic education model.
At The Indian International School, pupils and teachers danced to the beat of the dhol, a traditional Indian musical instrument, to welcome everyone as all pupils returned to school for the first time in the pandemic.
Nearly 13,000 pupils attended the school's three campuses on Sunday.
Close to 95 per cent of those pupils had returned to in-person school for the first time in 18 months and they were excited to reunite with friends and teachers, albeit behind the protection of masks.
“I am on cloud nine. It’s been one-and-a-half-years since I have been on campus for in-person classes and I have missed it and my friends terribly” said Nehan Naseem Ali, a 12-year-old pupil on the school's Oud Metha campus, which houses about 7,000 pupils.
“Now that I am back, new rules are in places such as social distancing, masks being mandatory, no handshakes, but I am still excited to meet my friends and teachers.”
Ali said he enjoyed learning online but it limited social interaction.
Pupils miss sports and science
Sathya Lakshmi, 15, was happy to close her laptop and return to in-person learning.
“I missed working in the laboratories and learning through practical lessons. Also, I missed going to the library and borrowing books," she said.
Pupils had to work in online labs during remote learning.
Sian Shinjo, a Grade 10 pupil at the school, was eager to work as a team with fellow learners once more.
“I am a bit nervous as everything has changed a lot. I am sure it will be safe and the school has kept us informed," said the 15-year-old.
“But, I really missed team sports and activities like playing cricket, football, and basketball."
Pupils in their last year at school relished the return of classroom camaraderie.
“I have only six months of school left and I am excited but also nervous," said Priyal Babariya of Grade 12.
“Meeting your friends, walks to the canteen, eating my favourite food at the canteen…I want to enjoy all of this." the 17-year-old said.
“Online learning was new but it was not necessarily a bad thing. We learnt new ways of doing things."
She said pupils had got accustomed to wearing masks and following other safety protocols.
Return to schools a moment to cherish
“Having the pupils back is unbelievable. I feel ecstatic. Empty hallways and empty schools are no fun. It’s like Eid and Diwali combined for us," said Punit MK Vasu, chief executive of The Indian High Group of Schools.
“We went all out cranking up the beat...making a big bang with dhols, dance and pompoms to welcome back our pupils and teachers."
Mr Vasu said he had looked forward to the day all his pupils would return to school.
“Initially numbers were low because people were not vaccinated. Parents also got used to distance learning."
He said the school treated distance learning and in-person classes as equally important.
“We are a community school and are used to having a large number of pupils as we are providing affordable education to many pupils."
To keep children safe the school has realigned its transport system and put checks in place.
"We have layered protection strategies such as a multilayered check points," said Mr Vasu.
"We have fully trained health and safety officers, right from security checks to the top. We have added more transport routes because our busses are safe and have a high level of safety protocols."
The school established a dedicated team to addresses parents' concerns over the resumption of in-person lessons.
Pupils' attainment and progress would be evaluated and children who have any learning gaps or feel anxious about the return to campus would be given support.
Parents stress need for social interaction
Uma Madhumohan, whose daughter Tejasvi is a Grade 10 pupil at the school, said her daughter was excited to get back to online learning.
“Children were in a cocoon within four walls. I am so glad that schools have opened," said Ms Madhumohan.
“Interacting and competing with peers is very important for children."
Rohi Ilyas, a mother of two and an entrepreneur, said her children had studied online for 18 months because of health reasons.
The children returned to school after both received the Pfizer vaccine, but the long period of remote studies affected their social abilities.
"They did not sleep last night and were very excited to get back to school," said Ms Ilyas.
"During online learning, my children who were very optimistic became pessimistic."
Utkarsh Chaube, whose 13-year-old son attends the school, was another parent glad to see the full-time resumption of in-person lessons.
"We noticed that the interaction skills had gone down," said Mr Chaube.
"Most of the time the children were in front of screens. My son was spending about 10-12 hours in a day in front of a screen which is not good from a development perspective.
"He was not willing to go out. We wanted him to get back to school and meet friends."