Education institutions and UAE employers and businesses prepare for a post-Covid world

Employers, school students and heads of educational institutes in the UAE reveal how life changed during the pandemic and on getting life back on track in a post-Covid world.

Sankar Pillai
June 14, 2020

The UAE aspires to be the best in everything it does, founded on the ingenuity and leadership qualities of its rulers. Overcoming stiff challenges to be the poster child for global nations, its commitment towards excellence is driven by the will of its citizens to triumph against all odds.

The current Covid-19 situation has tested the will, the grit and resources of this nation and its citizens over the past five months but the UAE is determined to put its best foot forward and set an example for the region and the world to follow.

It’s true that a lot of sectors have been affected by the crisis, especially the UAE’s expansive and rapidly growing education sector. One of the first sectors to go into lockdown, the UAE Government’s swift move saw UAE educational institutes aligning with government requirements, allowing students from schools and universities to stay safe in their homes, even as remote access and online class schedules were activated to ensure that study schedules were hardly disrupted and that students continued to get the opportunity to interact with their peers and teachers during the Covid phase.

Adopting individualized instruction

Monique Flickinger, Superintendent at the American Community School (ACS), Abu Dhabi, is emphatic, for instance when she says that while the announcement for schools to transition to remote learning may have changed ACS’s daily schedule, it certainly did not impact the academic quality or the importance of a strong partnership between school and parents.

Monique Flickinger, Superintendent at the American Community School (ACS), Abu Dhabi
Monique Flickinger, Superintendent at the American Community School (ACS), Abu Dhabi

“Our educators at ACS applied best practices in distance learning, including techniques to engage students in a rigorous asynchronous and synchronous digital environment,” says Flickinger. “As we enter our 14th week of remote learning, ACS teachers have adopted additional methods for individualised instruction due to the plethora of new tech skills they and their students have gained.” Talking about plans to getting back to campus in a post-Covid scenario, she says, “While we are excited to return to our campus to be together as a community, we intend to embed the progressive and high-tech strategies learned during this Covid phase. ACS used this time to create, refine, reflect and reimagine our new educational programmes as we prepare for our new normal.”

Working towards greater efficiencies

Dr Paul Richards, Superintendent, The American School of Dubai, focuses on the positives that combating the pandemic threw up. Contemplating on the school’s stand on the imparting of education in a post-Covid phase, he says, “Covid has caused us to rethink the precious time that we will have together when back in session. When back on campus, we will move some aspects of schooling to an online platform, and some employees will do some work from home. When we are together, we will take advantage of this in-person opportunity to foster connection, provide feedback, and collaborate together. Covid will force us toward greater efficiencies.”

Dr Richards, American School, Dubai
Dr Richards, American School, Dubai

In fact, in a previous interview with Gulf News, Dr Richards stressed on how critical it will be for schools to rethink education to adapt and evolve with the needs of its students and the sector in a post-Covid world.

“If schools are not rethinking education, their path toward irrelevance (and possibly bankruptcy) will be hastened,” said Dr Richards while speaking to GN Focus earlier this year.

“ASD will not change its mission, core values, or graduate profile, but we will make changes in how we deliver on these. Specifically, we will accelerate personalisation and relevancy of the school experience, through a blended approach to learning, where some aspects of the school experience will be in-person, and others asynchronous. Students will see additional content and coursework in design, innovation, business, entrepreneurship, global citizenship, and other high-interest content, all the while offering an excellent and well-rounded liberal arts experience.”

Students lead by example

In the UAE, the student body has stood shoulder to shoulder with their teachers and staff to ensure that the pandemic did not break their resolve.

a 21-year-old Palestinian expat and a UAE resident
Falak-Kassab, a 21-year-old Palestinian expat and a UAE resident

Falak Kassab, a 21-year-old Palestinian expat and a UAE resident, is a Major in Journalism at the American University in Dubai. When the lockdown came into force in the UAE, Falak was away in Lebanon following up on her graduation project on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. “When I got news of the lockdown in advance, I had to hasten the project in Lebanon, wrap up my interviews quickly and come back before the airports closed in Lebanon and here in the UAE.

“So, yes, it was a bit scary for me initially, but I also believed it to be a good opportunity to think on my feet as a training journalist and learn to deal with a live situation on the ground.”

Once back in Dubai, Falak was informed by the University management that due to the lockdown, students would not be heading back to the campus and would instead be part of online classes with schedules being put in place.

“It was a new experience for my friends and I,” says Falak, adding, “We were also a bit worried as we were into our last semester and working on our graduation projects. At this time, more than any other time, we required the guidance our professors and needed them next to us guide us to lead and teach us on what to do. However, I was actually happy with the online experience as I didn’t really feel the gap as our professors were always there for us, whenever I had a query, my professor was always present online to provide help and assistance.”

As the valedictorian of her graduation class, Falak does feel sad that the lockdown did not allow AUD to hold its annual graduation ceremony, robbing her of her chance to mingle and celebrate with friends and peers, family and professors one last time, before moving into the real world.

However, she also considers herself lucky that the lockdown afforded her an alternative opportunity as valedictorian to come on TV on MBC 1 and talk on behalf of the graduates of the class of 2020 from AUD. “Despite not having a graduation ceremony, I got the opportunity to wear my graduation gown while on the show and talk about the graduation process. Despite the lockdown, I feel I got the opportunity to live and feel what it meant to be a university graduate.”

For younger students such as Anushka Rajesh, it’s all about the waiting game. Transitioning from a CBSE curriculum to O levels can be draining for any student, and the stress and strain of a Covid lockdown only adds to the pressure. But like most of her peers within the UAE student community, Anushka presents a positive demeanour. A grade 7 student of the CBSE curriculum, Anushka is now moving to year 8 of a British curriculum and because of this transition phase she does miss her online classes.

Anushka Rajesh, student
Anushka Rajesh, student

“As I am about to join my new school this September, I really miss all the fun and online classes, with my teachers and classmates. My grandparents have always been an integral part of my studies so they make sure that I don’t miss out on the same. I spend around two hours on Zoom with them every day, which really helps me strengthen my basics, especially math. It is fun and interesting at the same time.”

Anushka feels that Covid-19 has been a teacher as well in more ways than one. “It’s taught me many valuable lessons, the best being to stay healthy, be happy and be prepared for any challenge that life could throw at you,” she says. “I also discovered many hidden talents of mine during this phase, such as drawing, writing poems, cooking and baking. I’m indeed confident tat the world will be back to normal once the vaccine arrives and I can’t wait to join my new school and meet new friends and am excited about the new things that I will get to learn.”

Building on hope

Working professionals, managers and CEOs who have been at the frontlines, managing their staff and organisations as the pandemic played havoc with company budgets and revenue targets, present an equally brave face as the coronavirus slowly plateaus here in the UAE.

Shajai Jacob, CEO, Anarock Property Consultants, reveals how the UAE-based consultancy recently relaunched office-based operations with a limited head count in keeping with the government’s Covid regulations while inching back towards a sense of normalcy.

Shajai Jacob, CEO, Anarock Property Consultants
Shajai Jacob, CEO, Anarock Property Consultants

“The UAE is a business-oriented market, so everyone will be relieved to be back at work. We have noted wide-spread understanding and acceptance of the need for strict social distancing, regular temperature checks and proper sanitisation in line with government directions,” says Jacob.

“Anarock was busy digitally throughout and post the lockdown period but the excitement to be back in office is palpable. We relaunched office-based operations recently, with a limited headcount and will build this up carefully, at all times ensuring office sanitisation, social distancing and all other latest guidelines to restart offices. ‘We are responsible’ will be our motto and are gratified to see it being adopted by all major players in the region. We also appreciate the UAE government’s active initiative towards ensuring that the lockdown was very successful both in terms of execution and achieving the reduction in spread of the virus.”

Constructive steps

Cyrus Engineer, Managing Director of property development firm, Shapoorji Pallonji Dubai, acknowledges how the world is facing an unprecedented situation with the global coronavirus pandemic affecting families, businesses, communities, and most importantly – the way we live.

Cyrus-Engineer, Managing Director , Shapoorji Pallonji Dubai.
Cyrus Engineer, Managing Director of Shapoorji Pallonji Dubai.

“Our hearts go out to anyone who has been impacted by the virus, either directly or indirectly. Our thoughts are especially with those who are unwell, to whom we extend our heartfelt wishes for a full recovery. We are also truly inspired by the selfless healthcare workers around the world who are at the front lines working tirelessly to care for people in need.

“At SP International Property Developers, we are working hard and investing to ensure that the actual level of safety being offered exceeds mandated standards not only for our customer but for all our colleagues.

“As a responsible corporate, we have deferred the collection for all payments due for the period February 1 to June 30, 2020 for our existing customers.

“Besides, keeping our value of commitment to employees uppermost, we have put great thought on the resumption strategy and have set aside clear guidelines which highlights the safety measures undertaken to manage the wellbeing of all our staff. Our aim is to collaboratively ensure we make them feel safe and secure, to navigate the complexities of this new normal.”

Engineer highlights some of these measures being undertaken by the firm including mandatory temperature checks upon entry, investing in advanced and regular disinfection, implementation of a 3-day Weekly Roster schedule that will ensure a phased approach to return to work for staff, managing external flow of people to avoid congregations, limiting physical meetings in meeting rooms and conference rooms and adopting new technologies for meetings and attendance monitoring. “We are also maintaining a minimum 2-meter distance between workstations within the office premises as part of the new Covid guidelines, and introducing flexible work timings for the benefit and comfort of our staff,” says Engineer.

“We sincerely hope that soon, we all would have defeated the common threat of Covid – 19.”

Stay fit, stay safe

With the heightened sense of awareness towards fitness and health in the Covid age, it’s ironical that one of the earliest casualties sector-wise in the UAE was the burgeoning fitness industry. With private gyms nationwide shutting doors in sync with government social distancing regulations, there were hardly any options for the UAE’s fitness fanatics to stay fit and in shape. However, gym owners were quick to react and grab the opportunity, upping the game by connecting with loyal customers and clients on the web and setting up online training sessions.

Patrick-Hegarty, Owner, Vogue Fitness
Patrick Hegarty, Owner, Vogue Fitness

Vogue Fitness, a fitness chain with gyms across the UAE in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah, recently opened its doors at select gyms across the UAE as lockdown restrictions were eased. Its owner, Patrick Hegarty, elaborates on the brand’s new schedule. “We are now open in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah; however, we are still awaiting Governmental advice to open in Abu Dhabi,” says Hegarty.

“In Dubai, we have reduced the total number of classes as well as the ‘cap’ of how many members can join each class.  Our opening hours remain relatively unchanged, however in RAK we have removed our morning classes and are just focusing on the afternoon classes in the opening stages.

“We anticipate that in Abu Dhabi we will see a reduced attendance, and we will reduce our overall classes accordingly when we are initially permitted to open. Our research indicates that attendance will gradually increase as people feel safe with the extremely protective safety measures we have put in place across all of our facilities.

Coping with the new normal allows brands like Vogue Fitness to reapproach traditional membership norms, says Hegarty. “With people now adjusted to the idea of doing a lot more things online than they were previously used to, fitness facilities can now cater toward this demand.

“It is fantastic news that during intense exercise face masks are not required to be worn, which removes a barrier for people to get started again (as breathing heavy in a face mask is not enjoyable).  We have created new sanitisation guidelines and employed more cleaning staff across all facilities to ensure that our members safety is prioritised.

The new normal is simply about a person finding what works for them, and as a fitness provider, offering what that is to them.

The brand also has a few new plans in place for the post-Covid phase. “Vogue Fitness has created and published a 3-Phase approach to reopening (on our website so that we can be as transparent as possible during our reopening,” says Hegarty. “As restrictions ease, and we get better at the new normal, we will align ourselves with best practice and the most current governmental advice to gradually increase the classes offered to suit demand.

“Humans are resilient, and we think that the UAE is positioning itself incredibly well to bounce back quickly from this pandemic.”

  • With input from Tina Bhakthavalsalan, Sajila Saseendran and Krita Coelho
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