Back to school: Hundreds of thousands of UAE pupils begin to return to class

Sunday marks the first time children have been physically in school since early March

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Pupils across the UAE began their return to school on Sunday for the first time in nearly six months.

Children were taken in by parents or collected by bus in an organised operation with a series of safety precautions in place.

Yellow buses were less than half full, as part of physical distancing measures, and parents were urged not to cross on to school grounds where possible.

"Academic life has returned and our schools are filled with hope, ambition and success," the Ministry of Education said. At the end of the first school day, the ministry said pupils had demonstrated commitment to health and safety measures.

Last week, teachers, school staff and bus drivers across the country were tested for coronavirus in a major campaign to prevent the spread of infection.

Naturally there's some tweaks that we need to make, but generally it's gone very very well this morning

"Every effort is being made to try to make it as smooth and safe as possible," said Darren Gale, principal of Horizon International School, an independent British curriculum school in Dubai.

"We rely on community spirit and everybody reading the information and the literature.

"Naturally, there are some tweaks that we need to make. There's no such thing as a perfect system. But generally it's gone very, very well this morning."

Abu Dhabi and Sharjah's education authorities are to stagger the return to classes. Abu Dhabi's primary schools can open from Sunday and Sharjah schools will open in two weeks.

In Dubai, all schools could open from Sunday, with a number choosing to open midweek.

Parents with children of any age can elect to continue e-learning. One school told The National that 75 per cent of its pupils would be back this week, while another said more than 90 per cent would return.

"It's been five long months and we're really very excited to get our children back," said Matthew Hagan, head of English at Horizon.

"There's a great buzz and atmosphere around the school at the moment. It's different, but it's good to be back."

Tarryn Patel, a Grade One teacher at American Academy for Girls in Dubai, said much of the first day back would be spent helping pupils become used to the new precautions.

"Today we'll be walking our pupils through some of the important rules that we need to be following while we return to the new academic year," she said.

"We'll be talking about how important it is to wear our face masks, and decorating our face masks. Because, although we can't see each others' smiles, we'll be able to draw smiles on.

"We'll practise things like hand washing, the importance of it between each lesson, and then teach them that when we go for a walk somewhere for some fresh air, how to keep social distancing."

'Pupils wanted to come back'

In Abu Dhabi, children under 12 were back in class on Sunday. High school pupils are to return in four weeks' time, in September or October, as part of a plan to stagger the numbers.

At Brighton College Abu Dhabi in Khalifa Park, about 800 pupils from FS2 to Year 6 were back, or 75 per cent of the total number at the school.

“This shows the pupils just want to come back and have social interaction,” said headmaster Simon Corns.

I'm against staying at home for too long, it is damaging for the pupils. My concern is getting senior years to come back to school soon

“I’m against staying at home for too long, it is damaging for the pupils. My concern is getting senior years to come back to school soon.”

Initially, the school was told it would take about one month for that to happen. “I know they [the authorities] are trying to keep it safe,” he said.

Stephen Haw, whose two sons were allowed to return to school, said it was "an absolute relief – I've got balloons out, we are having a party".

The Briton, 42, dropped his sons Hugo, 9, and Hector, 7, at the gates of Brighton College on Sunday.

“All my children just wanted to return to school," he said.

However, his eldest son, Harry, a pupil in Year 8, was not allowed to return yet.

Mask breaks and 'study bubbles'

At American Academy for Girls, about 200 pupils were back on Sunday, while a different set of 200 children will attend school on Monday. A further 100 pupils chose to learn online from home.

Children will be studying together in small bubbles of about 10 pupils.

"We have made clusters in the building to keep children in their bubbles while teachers will move from one class to another," said principal Casey Cosgray.

"We are using outdoor spaces for breaks and we converted a music lab into a physics classroom to have more space.

"Pupils will have mask breaks when they will take off their mask for a few seconds. This has a social, mental and emotional impact."

I am happy to be back. I am looking forward to doing some drawing

Children will receive a "coronavirus diploma" at the end of the first day, which shows they understand safety procedures.

Shaikha Amiri, an Emirati support manager, said her daughter, 6, was excited to join the school on day one of the academic year.

"My daughter has been studying online since March and I thought she needed face-to-face classes, as this is better," said Ms Amiri.

"When she was studying remotely, it was difficult as I had to to spend a lot of time teaching my children."

Her daughter, Haya Al Haj Nasser, said: "I am excited to be at school and I am happy to be back. I am looking forward to doing some drawing."

Additional reporting by Haneen Dajani and Anna Zacharias

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. Naividh Pillai (3) arrives with his sister Alaikha along with thier parents Meera and Deepesh. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Anna Zacharias. Section: National.
Naividh Pillai, aged 3, looks a little bewildered as he arrives for his first day at Gems Wellington Academy with sister Alaikha and parents Meera and Deepesh. Antonie Robertson / The National