Education in GCC region seeks a ‘new normal’ as coronavirus crisis drags on

A student wearing a 3D printed face shield and gloves attends a class at the "Faik Konica" primary school in Pristina on June 9, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 13 August 2020

Education in GCC region seeks a ‘new normal’ as coronavirus crisis drags on

  • Schools across the bloc searching for a balance between health protection and instruction
  • Opinions differ over whether to reopen schools for the new academic year in September

DUBAI: For over a billion students around the world, something as mundane as going to school has been abruptly excised from their daily schedule for much of the academic year.

Following the spread of the coronavirus in early 2020, most countries closed their schools and other educational institutions in an effort to protect communities from the pandemic.

In February, Bahrain and Kuwait became the first Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to announce school closures. By mid-March, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE had suspended all educational institutions until further notice.

According to UN, 1.5 billion children and young people in 165 countries — or 87 percent of the world’s student population — were affected by such closures in March.

The challenge was even greater in the Arab region, where conflicts had already driven 13 million children and young people out of school. Global monitors confirmed that school closures caused by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) affected more than 100 million learners across the region.

Five months later, with no specific COVID-19 medicine or vaccine around the corner, this grim situation persists. As schools remain closed for the summer holidays, there are clear differences of opinion over whether to reopen them for the new academic year in September.

“All schools exist to serve a community,” said Darren Gale, principal of Horizon International School in Dubai, adding “there is no right or wrong” when it comes to making this decision.

Gale believes that schools are much more than their buildings and divisions. “Whilst aspects of the physicality of school may look slightly different, the culture, ethos and expectations will remain the same,” he said.

Governments in the Middle East continue to work together with educational institutions to determine an optimal strategy on reopening schools and universities. A decision to welcome back students or to continue virtual education will be based mainly on the strict measures and protocols in place by the end of summer.




A picture taken on March 15, 2020 shows school buses parked outside a closed school in Dubai. (AFP/File Photo)

After all, one thing all parties seem to agree on when determining education’s “new normal” is that safety comes first.

“At the forefront of any school’s decision to open fully or as part of a blended model will be community health and safety, the ability to manage and suppress the possibility of transmission, and the ability to give as meaningful learning experience as possible within the context of a school’s campus,” Gale told Arab News.

What children will need in September is “strength in relationships,” he said. “The only new in the ‘new normal’ will be arrivals, movement through the school, drop-off and some groupings for lessons.”

Considering children’s adaptive nature, activities such as repeatedly washing hands, good hygiene and wearing a mask are no longer novel,  but part of the daily routine when leaving the house, he said.

“We should be reassuring children what will remain the same rather than solely focusing on what will be different. There needs to be a balance if we are going to be role models to children of how to effectively manage change.”

FASTFACT

GCC Education and COVID-19

- 87% Portion of world’s student population affected by school closures.

- 100m Students in Arab region affected by closures in March 2020.

- 50% Reduction in class size in many GCC schools due to reopen.

Expressing a view common among the region’s educators, Gale pointed out that schools should not be seen “as a standalone solution or the sole risk” to new outbreaks. Instead, schools are part of a community strategy to suppress the transmission of COVID-19, he said.

Bharat Mansukhani, managing director of International Schools Partnership (ISP) Middle East, says schools owned and operated by his group in the region have conducted school-specific risk assessments in preparation for the new year. Those assessments have been cross-checked against their schools in the US, Spain and Malaysia that have already reopened.

“There will be visible changes as the schools adhere to the guidelines provided by the authorities which will include, but not be limited to, temperature checks, masks for teachers and children aged 6 and above, smaller class cohorts, physical distancing, reduced bus capacity and an increased emphasis on washing hands and environment sanitization,” Mansukhani told Arab News.

ISP schools in the UAE and Qatar will focus on maximizing the time children can spend on-site while offering the broadest curriculum possible through a variety of flexible learning models, Mansukhani said.

“While our aim is to have all students on campus every day, our priority remains a healthy and safe environment for our entire community where learning is continuous and uninterrupted.”




A picture taken March 18, 2020 shows school buses parked in an open area after closure of schools in Riyadh amid measures to combat the novel COVID-19 coronavirus disease. (AFP/File Photo)

A similar mentality pervades nurseries catering to smaller age groups. Shaun Robison, governor of IDEA Nursery in the UAE, said the decision to reopen nurseries should be consistent with all other sectors in the country, noting that childcare centers, camps and hotel playgroups have reopened.

“Nurseries are an important function for a thriving economy that encourages dual-income households, and a female workforce,” he said. “Everyone is ready, and prepared to reopen.”

The same cannot be said of other GCC countries. While Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education has announced that schools will reopen on August 30, the decision depends on the health conditions in each of the country’s regions and communities closer to the start of the school year.

Each area will be issued a red, orange or green evaluation to indicate one of three scenarios: Full in-person attendance, a combination of in-person and online learning, and full-time virtual learning.

Class size will be reduced to 50 percent in various parts of the country depending on the number of COVID-19 cases in the community.

Tatweer Educational Transportation services Co., the ministry’s school transport provider, has urged students attending public schools that require their services for the upcoming school year to apply for seats ahead of time due to limited availability




A drone image taken on April 27, 2020, shows school buses parked in a lot in the Emirate of Dubai, during the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)

However, some parents would like distance learning to continue. “I really don’t think it’s a good idea right now when the world hasn’t yet found a cure. I’m not sure if I’ll be sending my son to school,” Amal Turkistani, a Saudi mother, told Arab News. “I would prefer that they continue schooling remotely, or part-time.”

Her view was seconded by another mother, Reham Al-Mistadi, who said: “It is difficult to have children attend school. They’re just kids, unaware of the importance of social distancing and using sanitizers.”

Meanwhile, Oman, which has reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the GCC bloc, has not settled on whether to open schools or continue remote learning. A national survey was launched on July 12 to monitor the immunity levels of residents in order to help the government reach an informed decision on reopening schools, colleges and other facilities.

While governments continue to search for an appropriate solution in the next few weeks that ensures a smooth start to the new academic year as well as the safety of young people, many schools are prepared to jump on the virtual train to learning once again, if needed.

“The flexible education models that we have planned for at each of our schools ensures that we can adapt to any change in guidance, as well as any change in the overall situation related to COVID-19, without disrupting the delivery of the high-quality education our schools are known for,” said Mansukhani.

“We believe that if our school communities work together and adhere to the protocols put in place, then we will all be in a good position to minimize the risk of infection.”

As for concerned parents in Dubai, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority released a statement giving private schools and parents the power to determine the best educational model for the new year. The options are physical attendance of all students, scheduling lessons in staggered shifts or to continue part-time or full-time distance learning.

Only time will tell what the outcome will be.

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@jumana_khamis


Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

Iranian singer Omid Tootian, 46, gestures during an interview at a coffee shop in the UN-controlled buffer zone in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, on September 23, 2020, where he's been stuck since mid-September. (AFP)
Updated 27 September 2020

Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

  • Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran

NICOSIA: Dissident Iranian singer Omid Tootian has for days been sleeping in a tent in the buffer zone of the world’s last divided capital, after being refused entry by the Republic of Cyprus.
“I can’t go to one side or the other,” the performer, in his mid-40s, whose songs speak out against Iranian authorities, told AFP. “I’m stuck living in the street.”
His tent is pitched between two checkpoints in western Nicosia, among the weeds outside an abandoned house in the quasi-“no man’s land” that separates the northern and southern parts of Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974.
In early September, he traveled to the north of the Mediterranean island, controlled by the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Ankara.
Two weeks later, Tootian, who had been living in Turkey for around three years, tried for the first time to seek asylum in the Republic of Cyprus, which controls the southern two-thirds of the island and is in the EU.  But once at the green line, the 180 -km buffer zone that traverses the island and is patrolled by UN peacekeepers, he was denied entry into the south.
Refusing to return to the TRNC, where he fears he would be in danger, Tootian found himself in limbo in the few hundred meters of land that divides the two territories.
“I don’t know why they haven’t approved my entry ... but I think it’s because of the coronavirus,” he said, speaking at the pro-unification Home for Cooperation community center in the buffer zone where he eats, grooms and spends most of his days.
“But I hope things will become clear because now I don’t know what will happen, and it’s a very difficult situation.”
Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran.

Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran.

Omid Tootian, Dissident Iranian singer

“Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran,” he said, adding that he had for the past six months been receiving anonymous “threats” from unknown callers using private phone numbers.
In July, three Iranians were sentenced to death by the Islamic republic. Two of them had initially fled to Turkey and, according to the non-governmental group the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Turkish authorities cooperated with Tehran to repatriate them.
Since arriving at the checkpoint, Tootian has tried “four or five times” in a week to enter, without success, despite the help of a migrant rights advocacy group known as KISA and the UN mission in the buffer zone.
According to European and international regulations, Cyprus cannot expel an asylum seeker until the application has been considered and a final decision issued.
The police said “they have restrictions not to let anybody in,” KISA member Doros Polycarpou told AFP.
Cypriot police spokesman Christos Andreou said “it is not the responsibility of the police” to decide who can enter the Republic of Cyprus.
They “follow the instructions of the Ministry of Interior,” put in place “because of the pandemic,” he added.
According to the ministry, “all persons who are willing to cross from a legal entry point to the area controlled by the Republic must present a negative COVID-19 test carried out within the last 72 hours” — a requirement Tootian said he had fulfilled.
Polycarpou charges that the Cypriot “government has used the pandemic to restrict basic human rights.”
A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Cyprus Emilia Strovolidou said “there are other means to protect asylum seekers and public health at the same time ... we can test people when they arrive or take quarantine measures.”
“We have someone who is seeking international protection, he should have access to the process,” she added.
Due to the closure of other migration routes to Europe, asylum applications have increased sixfold over the last five years in Cyprus — a country of fewer than 1 million inhabitants — from 2,265 in 2015 to 13,650 in 2019, according to Eurostat data.