School after Covid-19: What key lessons have been learnt?

Experts warn that pupils who thrived remotely may struggle to adapt to classroom environments

Some pupils thrived while learning from home, a marked contrast from their performance in class. Getty Images
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More than one million children returned to schools across the Emirates this week, marking the first start of term since the 2018-19 academic year to be uninterrupted by Covid-19 restrictions.

While the most significant implications of Covid-19 pandemic are behind us, education and child psychology experts are now warning that its impact on pupils must not be forgotten.

Among the most vulnerable, they say, are the children who unexpectedly thrived while working remotely, having previously struggled in a classroom environment.

Covid made children who prefer to communicate and engage through technology much more visible, said Dino Varkey, chief executive of schools provider Gems, told The National.

“Those students who typically aren't the most visible students in a classroom, for whatever reason, suddenly became really engaged and active when they were able to leverage technology to a much greater extent,” Mr Varkey said.

Covid made children who prefer to communicate and engage through technology much more visible
Dino Varkey, chief executive of Gems

“A good thing about switching to online learning is that it allowed teachers to see some children were learning more effectively using that method.”

The school year was already under way in 2022 when the announcement was made, at the end of September, that it was no longer mandatory for pupils or staff to wear masks.

The use of masks in indoor public places had been in effect for two and a half years.

Mental health in focus

A key lesson from the time spent working and learning remotely was the importance of mental health, a lesson that remains, Mr Varkey said.

“To most extents and purposes, schools are operating as they would be pre-pandemic,” he said.

“However, thanks to the visibility during the pandemic, mental health and well-being are now key parts of what schools focus on and are included in inspection frameworks.”

A leading expert on children's mental well-being said it was vital that the right support was offered to those who thrived outside the classroom environment.

“Transitioning from online to in-person classes comes with challenges for some students,” said Dr Meshal Sultan, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital and an assistant professor at the Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“Therefore, it is essential to place a strong emphasis on socio-emotional support, enabling students to navigate their emotions and strengthen social skills effectively.”

Another psychology expert said the pandemic gave many their first opportunity to experience an environment they were fully comfortable with.

“Some adults and children discovered things about themselves that they otherwise may not have [during the pandemic],” said Devika Mankani, holistic psychologist at the Hundred Wellness Clinic and co-founder of the website chearful.com.

“Remote learning, while tremendously challenging for some, was a positive change for others.

“Students who experience social anxiety or stressful peer/teacher relationships at school reported feeling relief at the idea of navigating these relationships on their own terms and still progressing with their curriculum.”

Ms Mankani said children who worked from the “safety of their home” were supported by the fact that it helped “take away the anxiety” of being in a large social environment.

“Similarly, students with individual academic needs were able to take their time to work through their curriculum online without the pressure of the next activity,” she said.

A lasting impact

While masks may seem appear to be a thing of the past in school corridors, that does not mean the safety lessons learnt during the pandemic have been completely abandoned.

“We have learnt many valuable lessons on reinforcing routines around hygiene and also in our approaches to learning,” said Emmet Glackin, deputy head teacher of secondary at Safa Community School in Dubai.

“We haven't exactly seen the digital revolution in all schools that many talked about but like most international schools, we have made a huge amount of progress in terms of our digital strategy, which continues to play an important part of our journey.”

Deep cleaning was a term synonymous with the pandemic, as schools and businesses ensured their premises were as secure as possible against infection.

While educational institutes are eager to restore a sense of pre-pandemic normality, the importance of placing a premium on health and safety has not been forgotten.

“We conduct periodic deep-cleaning sessions that cover every single part of our campus, demonstrating our unwavering dedication to hygiene and safety,” said James McDonald, principal and chief executive of Gems Wesgreen International School in Sharjah.

Hand-sanitiser stations are still a regular feature across the campus, as are the regular cleaning routines, with special attention to bathrooms.

“An isolation room is still available for staff and pupils displaying any symptoms related to Covid-19, underscoring our commitment to maintaining a secure environment,” Mr McDonald said.

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Updated: August 30, 2023, 9:16 AM