Dr. Madeeha bint Ahmed al Shibani, Minister of Education, has said that the education sector is being accorded great attention by His Majesty Sultan Haitham Bin Tarik, notably under the current exceptional conditions.
His Majesty the Sultan gave directives to make School Year 2020/2021 as a year of Blended Learning, an approach to education that combines traditional classroom-based methods of teaching with online classes or distance learning through electronic platforms or television channels.
The minister added that, in implementation of the Royal directives, the Ministry of Education continued to exert efforts to prepare plans and programmes for the operation of schools in a manner that guarantees the health and safety of pupils and teaching and administrative staff. The Ministry consults the best regional and international experiences and practices that fit in the Sultanate’s educational context, said Dr. Madeeha, noting that the efforts produced the General Framework of Operation of Sultanate’s schools.
The minister made the statements during the 15th press conference of the Supreme Committee tasked with tackling developments resulting from coronavirus (Covid-19).
During the press conference, the minister outlined plans for the forthcoming School Year 2020/2021 (which starts in full swing by 1 November 2020), noting that the Education Ministry devised a General Framework of Operation of Sultanate’s Schools.
The Minister explained that a set of health procedures termed “Health Protocol” is among the salient features of the Sultanate’s education system. The Health Protocol features the roles of all segments pertaining to the school community, including pupils, teachers and parents — who are all exhorted to undertake precautions like maintaining social distancing, wearing face masks, washing hands, using sanitisers and operating school buses at half capacity.
Another feature of the Sultanate’s educational system this year is the School Operation Programme, which endorses the system of hours rather than the system of classes, said the minister, who explained that schools have been put in three categories, depending on density as follows:
• Low density schools that operate with not more than 16 students per class in a day at a rate of 3 hours per ‘school day’.
• Medium density schools that operate at a rate of 4 hours a day at half capacity (number of students) during the first week and the other half during the week that follows.
• High density schools operate at a rate of 5 hours a day at one-third capacity in every week. Students have to be put in three sets (to attend in three weeks), except Class 12th students, who will be put in two sets, with the first group attending in the first week and the second in the week that follows.
It is stated clearly that students belonging to medium and high density schools have to continue their education online via educational platforms and television channels during the course of the week in which they stay at home.
The minister explained that the third feature of the educational system in the Sultanate this year pertains to the syllabus and assessment criteria.
The ministry adapted the content of the curricula to 180 days of teaching that imparts knowledge, skills and basic sound values to students. The Ministry also developed a learning assessment system that tallies with the syllabus and styles of direct and online teaching/learning, said Dr. Madeeha, noting that her ministry endorsed an ongoing assessment method and a system of one-time examination to be taken at the end of the school year.
Dr. Madeeha said that the Ministry of Education, as part of its keenness to provide all types of support to teachers, is conducting a number of training programmes to augment the competency of performance in the field of online education.
Dr. Madeeha said that in keeping with the policy of decentralisation, the Ministry granted its directorates general full discretion to undertake precautionary measures to protect the health of students and all other education workers.
The minister pointed out that school buses will operate at half capacity, since the number of students will not exceed 16 in one classroom (low density schools) or half classroom capacity (medium density schools) or one-third of number of students (high density schools). She added that only 97 schools will work with full capacity (in terms of number of students per classroom) because those schools fall beyond the range of internet cover.
Yet the actual presence of students inside classrooms will be subject to assessment in liaison with the Ministry of Health and the Supreme Committee, said the minister, adding that a number of committees have been formed for this purpose to closely follow up the condition of students.
The minister explained that the General Framework of School Operation is flexible and, if deemed necessary, schools can be closed and full online education can be applied again.
As for students who reside in places that get no internet access, the Ministry will enrich their experience through the operation of specialised television channels.
Dr. Madeeha pointed out that the Health Protocol sets out clear-cut health procedures, including temperature tests, use of sanitisers and application of social distancing inside classrooms. She added that, according to the World Health Organisation, first class pupils need not wear face masks.
Dr. Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Saidi, Minister of Health, member of the Supreme Committee, said that Covid-19 infection and mortality rate figures are fluctuating and again started to rise since last week. He explained that the Sultanate is experiencing the first wave, hoping that the new high is provisional, not constant.
A second wave of coronavirus is inevitable, “but we can avoid it through full commitment to precautionary measures (wearing face masks and following up healthy habits), said the minister, adding that the government does not mull partial or total lockdowns. He stressed that any further lockdown that might turn to be necessary in future, God forbids, may entail serious losses for the national economy.
Dr. Ahmed reaffirmed that the Sultanate is in continuous contact with most vaccine production firms that reach advanced stages in Covid-19 drug production, but no regulatory agency or drug monitoring institution will allow the distribution of the vaccine to humans before proper checks on its validity and safety.
In reply to a question, the minister said that a committee was formed last week to devise a plan for the re-opening of mosques and the plan will be announced later by the departments concerned. The Ministry’s job is to set precautionary measures for mosques, he added.
Meanwhile, Dr. Abdullah bin Khamis Ambusaidi, Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Education for Education, said that the General Framework explains the Blended Learning concept (explained earlier), using classroom teaching, TV channels, CDs and electronic materials, not only online education. He referred to the fact that some bilingual and community schools already started the school year last week because they are linked to international curriculum, but they will revert to direct education by November 1st.
Dr. Saif bin Salim Al Abri, Director-General of Disease Surveillance and Control at the Ministry of Health, said that his ministry is still maintaining epidemiological detection despite the decline of infection cases. A daily report on the number of cases is being maintained because the Ministry detected a rise in number of infection cases in governorates where no high numbers were registered before.”
Dr. Saif added that the Ministry of Health submitted (to the Supreme Committee) a list of chronic diseases whose patients can be considered for non-attendance at the workplace or school. This has been made in response to a large number of requests from different parties, he said.
Dr. Saif urged any person who experiences serious symptoms of infection not to go to the workplace or any other place, and this includes students. He also said that the results of the National Survey on Covid-19 will be released next week.
Dr. Zuweina bint Saleh Al-Maskariya, Director-General of the Centre for Educational Assessment, reaffirmed the Education Ministry’s keenness to calibrate assessment regulations and documents to come up with a uniform measure of assessment. This is because the volume of syllabus has been cut down by 30 per cent, said Dr. Zuweina, adding that the uniform assessment system will be in favour of students, notably because examinations will be taken at the end of the school year.