In early March 2020 the heads of international schools in Abu Dhabi were called to an urgent meeting by the school regulator to discuss the ability of schools to teach remotely. At that point it felt like more of a desk top exercise.
Most of us were upbeat and felt a move to distance learning two weeks prior to the spring break would give the Emirate of Abu Dhabi a month-long “circuit breaker”. The general feeling was two weeks distance learning followed by two weeks of holiday and we would all return in mid-April 2020 back to normal. How wrong could we have all been?
Now, 14 months later with schools now full of heat sensors, one-way systems, screens, separated desks, sanitizer wash in every room, security checks for PCR tests at our doors and everybody wearing a face mask, the whole picture is completely different.
Overnight, schools moved from their normal day-to-day educational provision to a completely online service. The switch in schools was the equivalent to a commercial jet pilot being asked to fly a helicopter the following morning. The principles of flight are the same, but the skills and techniques are completely different, some of which had never been used by some teachers before. This is what teachers throughout the world have had to do and I must say, have done so professionally, selflessly and effectively.
“The switch to remote teaching was the equivalent to a commercial jet pilot being asked to fly a helicopter the following morning.”
This switch has not been without both professional and emotional challenges, but the teaching profession has been superb and selfless. School staff in Abu Dhabi must undertake a PCR nasal test every 14 days and there has been a huge drive for staff to have the vaccine. This is a massive personal commitment in order to support schools and their students to get back to as normal as possible.
Within The British School Al Khubairat we had the vaccine team visit the school and administer the Covid vaccine to all staff who wanted it, with an uptake of 94 per cent. The remainder are either wanting to take a different vaccine or are unable to take any vaccine of this sort due to health concerns. I am genuinely proud of the number of staff who have volunteered to receive the vaccine, supporting the school community, Abu Dhabi and the UAE.
The positive from a school perspective is that staff feel more confident being in a class of students. We must remember that despite all of the protocols and safety measures put in schools, we have no control over what students and families do outside of school hours so the fear of the impact of contracting the virus is reduced. The Covid vaccine offers this reassurance. The UAE has a very high vaccine uptake of over 11 million doses administered at the time of writing this article. With a population of around 9 million and the vaccine available to 16 year olds and older, the uptake is phenomenal.
“A large number of schools in the Emirate have had to move to distance learning due to Covid cases.”
Schools are operating under extremely strict safety measures within the Emirate of Abu Dhabi with weekly Covid compliance inspections, regular updates of requirements and supportive helplines for recording suspected and confirmed cases. A large number of schools in the Emirate have had to move to distance learning for classes, year groups or the entire school due to Covid cases. The risks are still there and the impact is still very real, but the vaccine has reduced the impact of infection and given staff confidence in work. However, where staff have family members who have not had the vaccine yet, the risk of carrying Covid home is very real and that is a reason for the continuation of the strict compliance regulations even after a mass vaccine uptake.
The UAE has been one of the most successful countries rolling out the Covid vaccine to its population and this has certainly supported schools returning to face-to-face learning. However, some countries have not been as successful and the impact upon learning and access to school has been severely impacted. Many schools have been working remotely for over a year, some have had certain year groups receiving distance learning and others have been uninterrupted.
Fortunately, for the UAE we have collectively been driving to have students in school. The Covid vaccine roll out has certainly given the authorities confidence in moving to face-to-face learning and although the risk is still present, a community collectively supporting the vaccine program does give reassurance, confidence and allow us to move back to “normal” as soon as possible.
Although learning has been clearly impacted, I believe the academic delivery has coped. It is wider holistic education which includes co-curricular activities, the social aspect of school life and the interaction that is also educational that has suffered the most. This is where I see the greatest impact on students. Their wellbeing, basically. Schools are aware of this and are working hard to overcome it. However, I also think there needs to be consideration for the impact upon staff’s wellbeing.
“I am hopeful we are seeing things improve, but as a school leader, every day I feel schools are on a knife edge, worrying if an outbreak will hit their school.”
People go into a career in education for a number of reasons. They may want to work in a social environment, they may want to shape the lives of young people or they may see the benefits of the regular and long holidays as a perk. All of these factors have been severely impacted upon by the pandemic. Travel has been severely reduced, so a number of international teachers have been unable to travel to see family in their home country for over a year.
The protocols around social distancing and wearing of a mask have reduced the social aspect of the role. Not being able to walk around a class and speak with students on a personal level about their academic development or have them all together engaged in a wonderful assembly has taken its toll. The job, through the pandemic is not what people got into teaching for and I believe many are feeling the strain.
It is this aspect that challenges school staff the greatest and schools need to be mindful of this as we want our staff to be highly motivated, refreshed individuals who develop young people under their charge. I think school staff have been amazing, looking at unique ways to overcome many of the challenges, but it is certainly taking its toll upon staff wellbeing.
I am hopeful we are seeing things improve, but as a school leader, every day I feel schools are on a knife edge, worrying if an outbreak will hit their school. This uncertainty and lack of control as a leader is a challenge that also impacts upon all of the school community. The vaccine has certainly offered hope and that has been uplifting to a point.
It has now been 14 months since that urgent school meeting with the regulator was called. We are not back to normal yet, but let’s hope we keep moving towards the day when students and staff can stand together closer than 2m and see each other and smile without a face mask