The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every area of life, with the field of education being no exception. Teachers and students around the world have had to adapt to a new way of teaching and learning. With school closures and the subsequent increase in the use of technology for instruction, education looks very different now than it did a year ago.
We explored this topic in our most recent issue of The TORCH magazine, but we wanted to learn more about how educators overseas were handling these challenges in their schools.
We talked with FSU College of Education alumna Debra Willacey (B.S. Elementary Education ’05), who is the head of secondary at Nibras International School in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Read on to learn more about her career since leaving Tallahassee and how she’s dealing with COVID-19 obstacles in her current role.
A Career Path Abroad
I am a Jamaican-American who, inspired through personal experiences, quickly developed a deep passion for education. This resolve stuck with me through university, leading me to get my Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Florida State University and a Master of Science in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University. Through fifteen years of career experience across Florida, North Carolina and Dubai, I have served on many professional and community committees and continue to strive to learn more in the field of education and use it to help others. I am an educator who has more than ten years of teaching experience in elementary, middle and high school settings as well as over six years of educational leadership experience at the school, state and country levels.
In each post that I hold, the question that I continuously ask is, “What can we do to ensure that students of every readiness level and from every culture feel supported, included, challenged and safe?”
This question remained as a part of my resolve when I decided to educate students abroad in the United Arab Emirates. I began my journey at a government (public) school where I taught mathematics at an all-girl school. As my first working experience abroad, the first thing that I learned was kids are kids, no matter the country! It is our duty as educators to develop students who are ready to succeed in our continuously evolving, technologically rich, interconnected society beyond borders. Just as I experienced in the U.S., the students in Dubai are thirsty for knowledge and are just in need of the correct environment in which they can flourish!
From this school, I transitioned to working at the Ministry of Education in Dubai. There, I worked on curriculum, assessment and academic support for mathematics education in the Elite Stream. Though on a country level, I liken this responsibility to that of a classroom teacher. No matter how many students we have, our charge is to impart knowledge and provide opportunities for students to improve academically and develop socially. In this position, it was humbling to collaborate with teachers, helping them to improve their craft. Doing so—by first building a relationship founded on respect, trust and open communication—was essential to teachers’ improvement and thus students’ improvement!
Along Came COVID
In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, we usually have Spring Break the last week of March and first week of April. Due to the onset of COVID-19, we were thrust into a whirlwind, and the country forced an early Spring Break for the first two weeks of March. The two weeks following were mandated as distance learning, and we were due to return to the building on Sunday, 05 April 2020. (Yes, we work from Sunday through Thursday here!)
The fifth of April came and went, and we worked even more than educators normally do. Our governing body, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), jumped into action to ensure that students were receiving a proper education, and they deployed a distance learning evaluation in Dubai private schools. We had to organize ourselves to virtually demonstrate that 1) students are learning beyond the physical boundaries of school, 2) students are making progress in their learning, 3) educators are using and adapting the most effective practices in teaching and monitoring for distance learning, and 4) educators are safeguarding students’ health, wellbeing and cyber safety. (I must say that all over the world, we’re still trying to “perfect” this.)
Virtual schools were probably the least affected by this sudden shift to strictly online learning because they already had the infrastructure in place. I’m sure that we educators can say a collective “thank you” to the companies who opened their platforms and services for free use and worked tirelessly to increase the load their site was able to take with all the new activity! Beyond the appreciation, we can also agree that February through June in the education world was both slow and fast at the same time. Days seemed to drag on, though our pace during the day continued to increase! Some weeks, we didn’t know if we’d make it to the end of the school year, but, as always, we banned together and made it. From the virtual meetings with parents to extra student support sessions, we earned that summer break - but before the break, we held a drive-up graduation for our grade 12 students (one car allowed for each family). We did what we could to honor the students’ achievements and make them feel seen.
Fast forward to August (and me being at a different school). Starting a new position amid COVID-19 is both a blessing and insane simultaneously! Dubai private schools could reopen their doors, but this came with so many protocols not only from KHDA, but also from the Dubai Health Authority (DHA). Anyone with a temperature of 37.5°C or above cannot enter the school building. This means that there are numerous temperature checkpoints prior to students entering the building. This goes from students who ride the bus to those who are dropped off and the small number of students who ride a scooter to school. In the parking lot, there are ten of us at Nibras International School who carry out these temperature checks while students are still in their vehicles. There is a second temperature check at the security gate. Once students make it through the shoe and bag sanitization area, they are met with a thermal temperature check at the building entrance. Who would have ever thought that we would have to do this much before the school day? Throughout the day, we must continuously and verbally enforce social distancing and how to properly wear a mask. Beyond the verbal reminders is the abundance of signage on the walls, floors and furniture. Stand here. Sit there. Wait here. Sanitize there. Walk on this side. Walk in this direction. The list continues!
Now, this does not mean that 100% of our population has returned to campus. Based on our space and social distancing, we’re able to be at 80% capacity. Some students are fully onsite, others are fully online, and the rest follow the blended model of one week onsite and the next week online. Imagine what it takes to keep track of where each child is, especially when their learning model changes, sometimes daily without notice. This may be cliché, but teachers are the real superheroes! In each lesson, they have students onsite and online. One or the other is challenging enough, much less at the same time. We’re a Google Suite school and have all the gadgets (e.g., smart screens), but that doesn’t ensure success. Beyond hardware and software, we rely on parent support. It feels like we contact our parents even more than before. We’re not asking them to teach their child; we’re asking them to authentically check in with their child. Is your child truly in class, or did s/he simply log in to the Google Meet session in one window and is now scrolling on social media in another window? Needless to say, we’re not solely educating children; we’re also trying to educate parents. Being more present is essential to any child’s success!
Just when things seemed to be going well, someone tested positive for COVID-19 and we all sprang into action! We reported it to DHA and completed the contact tracing process. Certain students and staff were sent home to quarantine for 14 days and could not return to school before submitting a clearance certificate from DHA. The teachers who were quarantining due to close contact still taught from home, and the students still attended virtually. However, the onsite students were still at school, which meant we had to find cover teachers for safety. Each day is different, and no matter what you plan, know that things will go completely another way. And still, we rise! We rise to the occasion of running student council, being a guest reader in a kindergarten class, ordering senior class paraphernalia, guiding university admissions and much more.
As we maneuver through COVID-19 education developments, we must give ourselves grace and be vulnerable to try (and sometimes fail at) new ways to educate students. They are watching! May we continue to inspire them to achieve at their highest potential and encourage them to employ a growth mindset, show tolerance and collaborate to achieve goals.