Schools reopened at the end of August with more than a little trepidation. How would they handle parents’ fears? How would they impose social distancing on kids? In a livehealthy.ae webinar this week, we asked two Abu Dhabi educators — Emma Shanahan, principal of Aspen Heights British School, and Nura Arabi, physical education teacher at Emirates National School — how the first week back in the classroom since schools shifted quickly to distance learning went for them.
How is your school handling the safety restrictions?
Emma: We went into distance learning in early March and we’ve evolved our distance learning program over 15 weeks. We felt that if we could do that, we could do anything, so reopening the school has felt much easier. But as with everything, there are unforeseen challenges. Some of the measures are familiar, like social distancing, but if you don’t work in a school, you won’t know how we’ve had to group our cohorts of students and staff into “bubbles” to limit interaction. We also have a detailed track-and-trace system in the school so if there is a case, we can isolate it quickly and quarantine that bubble and on-site learning can go on in the rest of the school. As a team, we worked on this through the summer and we’re delighted with how smoothly it’s gone.
We had a transition week with two year-groups in each day to show them the different entrances and show families where to drop them, and then last Thursday, we had every year group in and we held our breath — and it worked.
Nura: For the first three weeks we’re all online for all the students until we get everything set up with the bubbles and so on. We’re also still collecting answers from parents as to what kind of schooling they want for their child — who wants to have blended teaching (in the classroom with technology) and who wants to be fully online. The students I teach are from six to 10 years old so there’s a different dynamic. PE teachers are seen as a hazard because our students rotate. We don’t stay in one classroom.
How are the staff doing mentally in this very unusual situation?
Emma: I always try to remember previous challenges we’ve faced, when we were successful. We haven’t got a clear line of sight yet as to how this will all play out but I do know that last term, we completely changed the way we work at the drop of a hat and we were able to do it.
No idea is a bad idea. We need creative problem solvers now and because the staff are invested and encouraged to have an opinion, they feel they’re in control of what they’re doing.
Nura: It’s funny, but right before coronavirus I was studying e-learning and so I was getting prepared without knowing what was happening and I was even using a couple of my videos in my teaching, so for me personally, the shock was not as extreme as for others. But watching what’s happening around me, it’s overwhelming for a lot of people, especially if you’re not ready to flip the whole system overnight.
How have the children reacted?
Emma: With young children, it’s impossible to physically distance them. Communicating with their friends and sharing their toys is social learning for them. Out of 120 four-year-olds we had only two lots of tears. They were so excited to see each other and their teacher and be back in school.
Nura: Before Covid, we had different units on the curriculum throughout the year. There was an athletics unit, healthy lifestyle unit, games, gymnastics and dancing. Now we’re a bit limited. I can’t guarantee my students are following the class at home. I don’t know what kind of space they have. I’ve been doing work on cardio improvement and games with the six to 10-year-olds. And I really feel that when I talk about health, they’re listening more. I’ve had a lot of students contact me on my private Instagram asking for advice and sometimes their parents are with them.
There’s been a lot of debate about whether schools should reduce their fees because of the time lost in lockdown. What do you think?
Emma: Having to install things like thermal cameras means our costs have increased rather than decreased. All our staff have necklace microphones so when they’re teaching they can speak to the children who are Zooming from home.
Nura: Online teaching can be a lot more costly because you need special equipment. It may look like schools are not paying for pencils or for electricity but you have to make sure your internet has enough gigaspace. There are a whole lot of different costs that people are not aware of.
Is the rest of this school year a write-off?
Emma: No. The children have learned different skills, like resilience and independence and how much they appreciate being able to see their friends and go to school. Throughout history there have been children who’ve had their education disrupted through natural disaster or war and those children go on to lead incredibly fulfilling lives. This situation is unprecedented and out of our control but children will be learning different things that will stand them in good stead for the future.
Nura: I see what’s happened as a huge learning opportunity. This is a big lesson in how to create a disaster-proof education system. We were not pro-active, we were reactive. We didn’t have a Plan B. We were not ready. It’s good for us to work more on different ways of delivering education so that we’re able to switch quickly when we need to. We have to learn to expect the unexpected.
Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
Nura: The only thing I wish is that there could have been some adjustment to the curriculum to match the learning style. But I was doing videos before the pandemic so my students were used to that and they were excited to see more and even asked me for more. So in a way, I was ready for this.
Emma: Saying I wouldn’t change anything doesn’t mean we did it all right, by any means. Maybe I would have turned my phone off for a week in the summer!
Emma Shanahan and Nura Arabi took part in a webinar hosted by Livehealthy.ae on September 7.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.