Year-group 'bubbles' help Dubai schools to stay open after Covid-19 cases identified

High vaccination rates and a clear structure from authorities means schools no longer have to shut completely

Corridor closures, isolating year groups, and track and trace techniques have helped principals in Dubai keep schools open this summer term, despite a slight increase in Covid-19 cases among pupils.

The "bubbling" of classes to stop children interacting with other year groups, vaccinations and clear Covid-19 protocols from Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority also helped, teachers said.

Pupils in Grade 2 and above wear masks, and always sit in the same seats in classrooms and on school buses.

This reduced the risk of transmission if a positive case was reported in a school.

My advice to parents is always to communicate quickly with us and don't feel embarrassed about doing so

Sarah O'Regan, principal at Gems Wellington Academy Silicon Oasis, said she had to close a Year Five class three weeks ago, but it did not affect the rest of the school.

"Over the course of the year, we have had to close certain corridors because of an outbreak in that particular year group,” said Ms O’Regan, who has 3,100 pupils in her care.

"We had two cases in a Year Five class and then another two cases in another Year Five class, so we closed that corridor.

"Throughout the year we had to do that on a handful of occasions."

The pupils switched to online learning for 10 days.

"Back in November or December, we were closing class after class. Now it's minimal," Ms O'Regan said.

The school has several strategies to reduce the transmission of the virus.

Every pupil has to follow a seating plan in class and on the school bus. If there is a positive case, close contacts of the child are informed.

Parents and pupils are advised not to host or attend graduation gatherings or birthday parties. Ms O'Regan said 96 per cent of the school's staff are vaccinated.

Effective safety protocols

Fiona Cottam, principal of the Hartland International School Dubai, said coronavirus cases on her campus increased recently.

"In the last two weeks we have seen an increase in close contacts and have had a very small number of confirmed cases, which we have shared with parents," she said.

"This is the first time since early February that we have seen any cases at all. It, therefore, remains crucial that we continue to take all precautions."

Despite the confirmed cases, the school did not have to shut down any class. It followed track and trace protocols set out by Dubai Health Authority and the education regulator, Knowledge and Human Development Authority. And having a fully vaccinated staff helped to avoid any disruption to school activities.

In May, officials said 85 per cent of Dubai's school staff had received at least one dose of a vaccine.

Those between 12 and 15 years can receive the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine but younger pupils are still ineligible for inoculation.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , March 9, 2021 –  Fiona Cottam, principal  at the Hartland International School in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Online. Story by Anam

Mandatory safety measures in schools include strict social distancing, temperature checks, wearing masks, and staggered drop-offs and pick-ups.

Despite the safety measures, Arbor School Dubai had to temporarily close a year group for a few days this week while pupils were tested.

Principal Brett Girven said he needed to move only some individual classes to online learning.

"We have had a single class close recently, and can link this closure to a birthday party which occurred off-site. It also infected parents and siblings," he said.

"The year group stayed open as KHDA guidelines indicate closures are only necessary if there are multiple students in multiple classes.

"In this case it was confined to one class, so that class and any close contacts identified by contact tracing were isolated.

"Bubbles work well as there was no transmission within the school."

Distance learning an occasional necessity

DHA and KHDA take the final decision about keeping year groups open or closing them temporarily.

This is done on a case-by-case basis and after evaluating all the factors.

Private schools in Dubai have to report any positive case to the authorities and they must move to distance learning if more than five per cent of the pupils become infected.

A committee of DHA, KHDA and Dubai Municipality officials meets regularly to discuss safety measures and the situation at schools.

James Monaghan, principal at North London Collegiate School, said some pupils had to quarantine recently.

"We have had a few classes online for the mandatory 10-day period as advised by the DHA and KHDA following positive cases and close contacts," he said.

"As of today we don’t have any grades or classes online and have not had any grades off as a whole since February, when cases went up after the holiday period."

School officials have focused on staff vaccination and educating the parent community.

Mr Monaghan said he communicated with the parents of his 960 pupils on a regular basis.

"We have a Covid team who are monitoring communication with parents seven days a week and have set up specific avenues of communication for parents relating to any Covid matters," he said.

"I wrote to parents last week asking that parents stay vigilant and be aware and not to relax their approach to minimising the risks.

"My advice to parents is always to communicate quickly with us and don’t feel embarrassed about doing so."

Parents are advised to keep children at home when in doubt, until they have spoken to a member of the medical team at the school.