Though the exact format of how schooling will look come September will remain unclear until much later in the summer as things change week by week, one thing is for sure, teacher and pupil safety will be paramount. Schools are already beavering away to implement new structural, staffing and auxiliary changes to campuses, ensuring everything from hand sanitisers to extra nurses are in place, new entry and exit procedures, and even one-way systems within communal spaces.

The three possible back-to-school scenarios

There are three models on the table: the full return, a partial and blended return with some children learning remotely while others are on-site, and a worst-case scenario, of continued distance learning.

Steve Sharples is head of academics at Aldar Academies, which has 20 schools under its care, including the Adnoc schools. He says while continuing distance learning is possible, children miss their friends, the social environment of school and the things beyond the classroom, it provides.

As one of the biggest school groups, its campuses and classroom are modern and large, with plenty of space for social distancing, even with a full return, he says, though everything will depend on whether by September, regulations are 1m or 2m. “We’re having to review plans frequently,” he explains. Class sizes are on average, 22-23 pupils, and he says some could retain that at 1m distancing. However, keeping younger children in one place, for a long period of time, will be challenging. “In practice it could work, but we are looking at using other spaces, sports halls, drama theatres, and extending those areas and utilising them for other things.” Splitting classes into two groups may also be an option, though he says a partial return would be a much easier setup for schools to manage than full.

More staff and one-way systems to minimize movement

Schools are looking to increase numbers of nursing and teaching support staff, not least, to help with movement around school. As many schools agree, Aldar Academies’ Steve Sharples says moving the teachers will be far easier than allowing pupils to move classrooms each time there is a subject change. One-way systems would be closely monitored, and parents will likely not be able to enter campus, where measures including temperature checks will be necessary to ensure campus safety. Extra staff will be needed to escort younger children and help set up new handover mechanisms. Schools across the board, agree these measures will likely become part of the minimal requirements of them.

Activities such as sport will remain a priority for the schools, vital to keeping the children active and healthy, as Mr Sharples says breaks will likely be held in classrooms to minimise movement on campus, and already re-designing a socially distanced canteen with screens to protect staff. Other extracurricular activities will either be put on pause, or go online, as has been seen already, or perhaps even be taken into larger spaces where it is possible to have social distancing.

Socially distanced classrooms

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Online inductions

An online induction system will be in place for many schools before the return takes place, familiarising students and parents with new physical setups and procedures.

Alison Lamb, Principal of Dubai Heights Academy, says from a technical point of view, there are parent apps available for check-in and tracing, which is an option school managements are looking at. “We have had a wellbeing network set up in-house so our parents and staff can reach out anonymously but also for some students, whether returning or new, this may be traumatic as their interaction will not be the same. We as a team have looked at this and have plans in place so the students can safely integrate with each other again and we want to create a sense of normality.”

Social distancing and Covid tests

At The English College, Mark Ford, the school Principal, says one of the big questions is how many students will be allowed in the building at the same time. With around 20-24 students on average per class, he says managing social distancing with a full return, could be possible, where necessary, pupils spread out into less used spaces, but the likely scenario could still remain that some pupils will be on-site, while others tune in remotely. “Half of them might be in the class or half of them might be online, and then the next day, or in the afternoon, it might be that they swap,” he explains. He acknowledges that such a scenario however, is trickiest for working parents. Another option could be one week on, one week off, but these things are all very much still in discussion until further guidance is given.

He assumes pupils and teachers will have had to undergo a Covid test, to ensure they are virus free, but awaits further clarity from the Ministry of Health. He envisages other changes include children having to sit facing the same direction, to minimise contamination output.

Break times and social gatherings remains unclear, he says, the school considering the likes of staggered breaks. “Again that's open discussion - do we allow them out in small groups and staggered, but obviously heavily controlled, to make sure that social distancing? It depends on which model we go with. If it's a shorter four-hour day, then obviously the need to be out is less than if they're in school for longer, as there have been discussions about schools running shifts of four hours,” he explains.

Rising costs and fee pressures

Although many parents have been hit with salary cuts and job insecurity, schools are doubtful that reduced school fees will be possible next academic year as their costs will be going up rather than down. The English College’s Mark Ford fears the social-distancing-related changes will be expensive for schools to implement, especially for smaller independent schools such as the English College. However, he is positive about the coming year, in spite of gloomy predictions of large numbers of expats forced to leave due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Many parents have already expressed an intent to continue into the autumn term, and Ford says he is “really pleased and relieved” with numbers, and hopes it will be “business as usual” in spite of the coming challenges.

At Aldar Academies, Mr Sharples agrees. “The re-enrolment rate isn’t significantly different to last year,” he says, and urges parents to be patient. “I do appreciate that it’s not possible to know [exact guidelines] yet, and across summer, we have to be ready for multiple solutions. We don’t know what’s going to happen but we’re preparing for all eventualities.”

More future-ready schools and students

Jeff Youssef, Partner at Oliver Wyman Consultants says Covid is helping push outdated education systems to change at a rapid rate. “This period will define what and how we educate moving forward,” he says. “Covid is accelerating the inevitable … there’s a good chance content needs to be brought more into the 21st century,” he says, with new skills such as technical literacy, critical thinking and more collaborative approaches to learning, finally coming into play. “It’s changing things for the better,” he says. However, intensive training programmes to support teachers into September will be needed, and as a blended system of in-school and remote learning looks likely for many, parents will become a key steward in the process too. Mainly what the period has done, he says, is allow parents the chance to appreciate the tough job of teachers. “It’s a lot of stress for teachers, and hopefully, parents appreciate the teachers more now.”

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Image composite: Melany Demetillo-Reyes