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

Foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) arrive, ahead of an annual leaders summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 9, 2019. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

RIYADH (RAHNUMA):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.

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.”

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