Dubai's new schools: How do you open during a pandemic?

Five schools following an array of curriculums – US, UK, Chinese and Indian – open in the city this month

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Five new schools overcame a series of hurdles to open in Dubai this month.

From delays in construction to shipments arriving late, headteachers tell of challenges that they faced to get schools ready during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Attracting new pupils in the world's most crowded international school market, signing them up without tours and giving pupils the option to study from home added to the burden.

So how did they do it?

“Opening a school in a pandemic is like building a plane while you're flying it," said Adrianna Chestnut, principal at Bright Learners Private School, a new American school in Rashidiya.

We just said we'd go through the storm and come out on the other side

"There is no road map or precedent of school that has done this before. With the pandemic, rules and regulations keep changing."

Bright Learners, which adapted a former government school building, charges fees of Dh22,750 at pre-kindergarten to Dh35,750 for Grade 12, putting it in the affordable to middle-tier category of schools.

As with most new schools, it has opened at low capacity and limited classes to pre-kindergarten up to grade 4. It expects 30 to 50 pupils to start on September 13, although once full it could hold about 2,000.

“When stay-home orders came into place we were not able to complete construction on the building, due to social-distancing regulations. We also had delays in shipments," Ms Chestnut said.

“But from construction to completion is about a three-year process in Dubai. There were lots of things already in motion prior to Covid-19 hitting."

Ms Chestnut, who has taught in Ohio and worked in Abu Dhabi schools, first arrived as the scale of the outbreak became clear in late March.

A teacher sanitizes the classroom at Bright Learners Private School.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

Teachers prepare to open Bright Learners to pupils on September 13. Reem Mohammed / The National

"At that point of time, we just said we'd go through the storm and come out on the other side," she said.

Drawing in parents and recruiting teachers, proved a challenge, but the size of the campus, classes of only 10 pupils and its affordable pricing helped.

From day one, teachers understand the need to provide mental health and emotional support to pupils who have been at home for six months.

Salary cuts and job losses mean many parents "need something that is affordable without sacrificing the quality of education".

Pearl Wisdom School, in the Abu Hail district of Deira, faced another challenge. Although it opened its doors to pupils for the first time this week, it began e-learning in April, when the Indian CBSE curriculum year begins.

Sooraj Ramachandran, director at the school, said lessons begin on April 13 – in the middle of Dubai's lockdown – although that was lifted on April 24.

As with Bright Learners, it has capacity to enrol 2,300 but aimed for a limited launch.

“We expected about 200 pupils to join in the first year," he said.

"But, as we opened the school, the stay-at-home measures came into place and families could not come to the school. Our opening was quite eventful."

This month, 30 children will attend in-person classes and a further 45 will continue e-learning from home. The school has only opened kindergarten to Grade 5, with class sizes of five or six.

“The admissions were done entirely virtually and we could not be at the school. The pupils could not see the classrooms and they only met the teachers virtually."

Despite the challenges and need to attract new pupils, Mr Ramachandran was optimistic about the future.

Pearl Wisdom's owner, Bhavans Middle East, runs nine schools in the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain.

"If we did not open we would lose a year," he said.

Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed attends the opening of Chinese School Dubai on Tuesday. Courtesy: Dubai Media Office
Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed attends the opening of Chinese School Dubai on Tuesday. Courtesy: Dubai Media Office

Fees range from Dh14,500 in kindergarten to Dh16,500 in Grade 5, making it affordable for many families. Pupils who joined in their first year received a 15 per cent discount.

The other schools to open this month are Al Ghaf Primary, a British curriculum school in Jebel Ali, and Vernus International School, which follows American curriculum and is in Silicon Oasis.

On Tuesday, the fifth school, Chinese School Dubai, welcomed pupils for the first time to its Mirdif campus.

Unusually, it is a publicly-owned school linked to China's state-run school system and the only one of its kind outside China.

At full capacity it could accommodate about 2,000 pupils.

"We welcome the opening of the first Chinese public school outside China in Dubai as a step that reflects the depth and strength of the ties of friendship," said Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed, who attended the opening.