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Karnataka: Heavy dithering price

October 16, 2020
– Special Correspondent (Bangalore)

The vacillation of the BJP government of Karnataka on the issue of reopening K-12 schools in the state is causing great confusion within school managements, parents’ communities and among students. According to the normative calendar, the state’s 46,000 government and 20,000 private schools (aggregate enrolment: 15 million students) should have commenced classes in June. But because of fear of vulnerable children being susceptible to the dreaded Coronavirus which is raging statewide and has already claimed 9,891 lives, the decision to restart schools has been put off time and again.

On July 29, the state’s primary and secondary education minister S. Suresh Kumar informed media and the public that schools would restart in September. But with the number of Covid positive cases and fatalities continuing to rise, Kumar (who himself recently tested positive for the virus) stated schools would be open for senior secondary students to “clarify their doubts with teachers” on September 21. But come September and the date was deferred to October 15. Again on October 3, he declared: “We have not taken any decision regarding reopening of schools in the state yet. The government does not have any such plans to reopen schools at present. We are taking the opinions of legislators, MPs, and concerned people. We will also have a discussion with education experts and institutions.”

The indecision and resultant confusion is costing private schools and students heavily. While government teachers continue to receive their salaries, private schools — particularly budget private schools which charge fees as low as Rs.300 per month — are experiencing increasing difficulty in meeting payroll expenses.

“The state government’s education ministry has issued circulars deferring school fees payment for parents. At the same time, it has directed school managements to conduct online classes and pay teacher and staff salaries. How can we pay teachers and staff when our income flows have dried up? This confusion has cost budget private schools heavily and many are on the verge of bankruptcy,” says Shashi Kumar, president of the Associated Managements of Primary & Secondary Schools in Karnataka (KAMS, estb.1988). According to the Delhibased NISA (National Independent Schools Alliance), a mere 5 percent of parents of children in budget private schools in Karnataka have paid contracted fees during the past quarter (April-June).

With the government dithering on the issue of reopening the state’s primary-secondary schools, parents have also become nervous. “While I would like schools to reopen with safety precautions, realistically speaking it’s not practical. Maintaining physical distancing, wearing masks and maintaining discipline at all times is very difficult. Therefore, I prefer online classes this academic year for my son,” says Divya Sreedharan whose son is a class VI student of the Auro Mirra International School, Bangalore.

While most upscale private schools have smoothly switched to online classes, the great majority of government and lowpriced budget private schools (BPS) don’t have the infrastructure to provide online learning. Neither do students of low-priced affordable private and government schools have digital devices (laptop, PCs and smartphones) to learn online. And with the first quarter of the new academic year already lost, children in government and BPS are likely to suffer considerable loss of learning unless schools reopen as soon as possible.

“Schools have to move towards the pre-Covid era as the citizenry learns to live with the risks, until a vaccine is invented and administered. Meanwhile, school managements have to take safety precautions — masks for everyone, social distancing, thorough sanitization of classrooms and premises etc. Moreover, they could divide classes with half the number attending on alternate days. But classroom learning and attendance can’t be delayed any further,” says Prof. G. Raghuram, former director of IIM-Bangalore and currently principal academic advisor at the National Rail and Transportation Institute, Vadodara.

This advice is unlikely to prompt the state’s BJP government which is surviving with a wafer thin majority, and has numerous other crises including the emergence of Karnataka and its administrative capital Bangalore as major Coronavirus hotspots on its mind, to grasp the schools reopening nettle in the near future. At the best of times neither the Congress nor BJP government have paid much attention to public education riddled with textbooks printing, teacher recruitment rackets and English language aversion. Even as most private English medium schools in India’s IT capital have switched to online learning. Children in the state’s 46,000 government and estimated 14,000 budget private schools are paying a high price for government dithering.

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