Back to school: How teachers are easing UAE's pupils back into classroom

From mindfulness to friendly reassurance, schools are aware that youngsters need extra support in the coming weeks

When grade six teacher Amy Rowlings returned to her classroom last week, the artwork of her pupils from last March still hung on the wall.

One by one, she removed the photographs of pupils that framed the doorway, the bright red artwork made for the Chinese New Year and green family tree cutouts. It had all been left up in the expectation they would return a few weeks later.

“Everything as it was,” said Ms Rowlings, who has taught at Gems Wellington Academy Al Khail for six years.

“I don’t think any of us had an idea at the time that it would be so long. Taking it down, piece by piece, it was definitely emotional.”

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I don't think any of us had an idea at the time that it would be so long

Once last year’s art was removed, she prepared for the new pupils, carefully sanitising her hands before laying a pencil and name tag on each carefully spaced desk.

Mrs Rowlings placed a big box of masks and hand sanitiser by her desk at the front of the class and checked the sanitiser dispenser at the classroom door.

For hundreds of teachers across the country, the thrill of preparing for a new term was amplified this year after school closures in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ms Rowlings first set foot in the school last week to prepare for the Sunday reopening.

“Last week, it was just wonderful,” said Ms Rowlings. “You know, the buzz around school. That vibe at school, that getting excited about learning.”

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 30 AUGUST 2020. STANDALONE. First day of school. Gems Wellington Academy in Al Khail opens for the start of the school year. Teacher Amy Rowlings, ready in her class room for the new students to arrive. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Anna Zacharias. Section: National.

“I’m just so happy for the children that will be in my class. They need that interaction with their friends.”

Of her 22 pupils, 14 return to the classroom this week and eight will study remotely by live streaming. About 87 of the school’s 1,037 pupils have chosen remote study.

Aware that children face new anxieties after months in relative isolation, Ms Rowlings' priority is ensuring children are comfortable sharing their feelings.

“Just explaining that you’re there, building mindfulness and giving them the opportunity to share their concerns in a way that feels comfortable, that’s what is key for those coming in now.”

Avril Hatch, a grade four homeroom teacher at the American Academy for Girls, had planned activities like mask designing for the new term.

On Sunday, she had six pupils back in her class for the first day of the school’s staggered start. By the end of the week, it will be back to a full class.

"We will be ensuring girls are fully aware of coronavirus and all the health and safety procedures they have to follow,” said Ms Hatch, who is from Ireland.

"They will be creating their own face masks and learning about hand washing, after which they will get their Covid-19 diplomas, which shows they are aware of how to self-care during this time."

Faten Al Zohaily, a Syrian parent and Arabic teacher at the same school, had spent the last few months teaching both pupils and her own children. Often, she would end up teaching the entire day.

"I am back at school and have sent my children to school as well,” said Ms Al Zohaily. “It’s not all about learning, the social side of being in school is very important.

"We need to balance both the physical and mental health of the children."

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