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Parents body demand grievance cell, uniform guidelines

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In India, closure of 1.5 million schools due to the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020 has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. The deluge of covid cases seen in the last three months has further added to their woes and prolonged absence from campuses. Between April 1 and mid-May, officially 577 children in India have become orphans. This has clearly shaken parents once again.

Parents by virtue of being the guardians of children,  ordinarily should be the major stakeholders in decisions around children in normal circumstances, however, they were left high and dry and also voiceless in this more than one year journey of helplessness due to covid. A large percentage of parents, who either became unemployed or underemployed and even incurred losses or emergency expenditures, digged into their lifetime savings with a constant anxiety for tomorrow. Education or schooling of children, one of the top priorities of households in India probably after food, made this stress more agonizing and depressing at the same time. With a switch over to online mode of education, a glimmer of hope, though uplifted them somewhat, but it came with shockers.

Most private schools didn’t show much empathy with them and raised demands for fees as if it were a routine. In absence of a central law or guidelines, parents as individuals or small groups did attempt to raise their voice against such exploitative tactics and even engaged in dialogue with schools, but without a referee, the match turned into a chaos and court battles.

In this ‘once in a century pandemic’ that has added more 1.56 lakh covid deaths from April 1 to May 29, the unseen crisis in lives of children has only deepened.  Upon this, the Supreme Court of India on May 3 in a ‘landmark’ judgment on school fee (Indian School Jodhpur v State of Rajasthan), took away the powers of state governments to regulate fee of private schools by executive orders. An ordinary citizen looks at the elected government to work for his welfare and protection, but in absence of laws and regulations, at least, school fee issue continues to burn hearts.

Many states have enacted fee regulatory laws but things are not working on ground and there is a need to study them for  what is good and not so good in them and also on implementation,” says Ashok Agarwal, President, All India Parents Association (AIPA). According to him while the need of a central model law is always there but parent activists need to look at state laws to make them work and improve.

According to a parent activist from Kashmir, Asma Goni, when the pandemic is showing no signs of abatement and we are already hearing about a third wave, schools will continue online for some more time. “Now, tell me when all those schools offering online use the same infra, technology and resources, how is that we have to pay differentials in fee for online classes? Shouldn’t there be uniformity about this fee at least? But who will ensure this unless, there is an appointed authority,” she adds.

It is also a time when officials have just taken their eyes off the situation. According to Mona Malik, president of United Parents Association, Delhi, none of her several letters to directorate of education about private school diktats have been answered till date.

Fee is not the only issue that is worrying parents. The quality of this education is perhaps the biggest worry. While some high end private schools have been able to establish some interactive online classrooms, a majority of schools including government schools are relying on whatsapp note sharing or Youtube lesson videos. “Quality of education is weakening day by day and needs to be looked into and it can only be done if governments pay attention,” says Subrata Barua from Assam.

When private school lobbies, which are well organized and resourceful are out in strength to protect and advance their interest, parents must also find their feet. “AIPA is relentless in its efforts to organize parents and make their voice heard. But the fight is tough,” adds R Venkat Reddy, Nation Convener, M V Foundation .

By Autar Nehru

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