UPDATE: UAE schools and universities to close for a month to contain coronavirus
Pupils at some public schools will try out a home-learning programme that could be introduced if government schools close to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
The 'Learning from Afar' programme will start with pupils from grades 5 to 12 over the next two days, the Ministry of Education said late on Monday.
In a series of tweets using the hashtag "coronavirus", officials said public schools would not close this week.
Normal classes will run on Wednesday but pupils in grades 5 to 8 will try out the distance-learning programme from 5pm to 7pm.
On Thursday, pupils in grades 9 to 12 will test the system from home. Teachers, however, must still attend school.
The ministry said distance learning was part of the “requirements of an Emirati school and to ensure the continuity of the learning process without any difficulties".
"Distance learning is considered a method of self-learning, which leads to strengthening the education system and ensuring its continuity,” the ministry said.
The decision does not affect private schools – but many operators are making their own plans in case the authorities tell them to suspend classes.
Private schools prepare their own home programmes
Gavin Walford-Wright, head of marketing and admissions at Taaleem, which runs 10 private schools in Dubai, said the group began testing a home teaching system last week.
The system would include live streaming, to allow teachers to talk to children.
"Home-learning programmes are already in place at Taaleem schools; for instance, Dubai British School uses Microsoft Teams. We would turn to these tools if needed," he said.
"Last week, we started stress testing the school network to make sure the bandwidth worked and could cope with the demand of simultaneous live streaming.
"We set up classrooms with an external connection so pupils could connect with teachers in a virtual classroom. The trial run went smoothly."
He said the main challenge is ensuring the internet connection is strong enough to allow theclasses to continue uninterrupted.
"The only other issue we could foresee with the full virtual experience is how to get materials to children in advance and keep them engaged," he said.
"An important part of the IB curriculum is the collaborative and community approach in the classroom. Materials are usually distributed in advance, studied, then teachers and pupils come face to face to discuss and analyse their findings. Part of that would be lost."
On Tuesday, Dubai’s private school regulator, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, asked schools to respond to a questionnaire to assess readiness.
It asked if teachers had participated in remote learning training exercises and whether the technology was used throughout the year for assignments and projects. It also asked if software could track the number of students online and if video conferencing and live streaming was available.
Questions were also asked about disinfection of buses and school facilities.
Kamal Kalwani, chief executive of school operator Ambassador Education, said they had prepared for "a situation in case the Ministry of Education asks us to use distance learning".
“We are already using Google classrooms and, now we are looking at using distance learning through live online classes."
Videos on topics can also be recorded in advance and used to teach children.
'Live online classrooms'
Schools run by Ambassador Education already use Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams.
Google Classroom is an online service that helps create and grade assignments, while Microsoft Teams is an online platform through which people can chat, collaborate, store files, and have video meetings.
"With the current development, we will be increasing the number of topics and videos we cover in our bank," Mr Kalwani said.
"If the ministry tells us that schools have to shut down, and you have to use distance learning throughout the day, then the resources are ready.
"Most of of our pupils have their devices at home and they will be using their computer and iPads."
Dairne Fitzpatrick, head of the British School Al Hamra, under RAK Academy, was also preparing for distance learning on Tuesday.
"We have five campuses and we have chosen Google Classroom for grade two and three upwards," he said.
The younger pupils in the primary section will be using ClassDojo, which is an online platform used for communication between parents and staff.
"We know of various other countries that have closed schools; that was something we were talking about,” he said.
The school started preparing for online lessons last week "when there was talk of a possibility of closure".
The moves come after authorities imposed a two-week shutdown of nurseries across the country.
In Abu Dhabi, Mark Leppard, headmaster at the British School Al Khubairat, said it has been planning for the possible impact of closure for a few weeks.
“We have a distance learning plan in place ready to be shared with our families if there is a forced closure,” he said.
“Obviously, teacher interaction is important, but at a time where circumstances may not permit this, we are confident that we can continue effectively.”
The school would turn to online tools such as See-Saw for primary learning and Google Classroom for pupils in Year 6 to 13, if needed.
“We are in regular contact with UK exam boards and are awaiting feedback regarding plans which they are putting in place,” he said.
At a briefing held on Saturday, Minister of Education Hussain Al Hammadi said that nurseries in the UAE would close from March 1, as a precautionary measure to curb the spread of coronavirus, according to state news agency Wam.
Extra-curricular school activities such as field trips have also been cancelled until further notice and staff have been urged to be on alert for any pupil displaying flu-like symptoms.
Those who do appear unwell will be sent home as a matter of urgency.
How to protect yourself against coronavirus
The nationwide restriction came after a decision by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai's private schools' regulator,to order the cancellation of teacher events and any "internal and external" trips on Friday.
Officials took action after the total number of confirmed cases in the Emirates rose to 21 at the weekend, when two support staff in the country for the UAE Tour, a major cycling event, tested positive for the Covid-19 virus.
Additional reporting by Ruba Haza