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Crisis of Distressed Parents during Covid-19

Covide-19 Pandemic gave us time, lots of free-time at home, with family and it unleashed the secret power of self-reliance. It made us self-dependent; we never knew that we could, unless we had to do it as a part of the survival strategy. It made us rekindle all that we were in the past until we became adults.

On the contrary, the irreparable losses were what we had to trade in. Corona Virus didn't just rob us off our beloveds; it also shook our seemingly indomitable confidence. Upon mankind all around the world it cast a spell of separation and distancing and overnight we were cursed with hunger, economical and emotional-instability, panic and uncertainty. It was a tough blow under the belt, while we were unprepared and are still quite unarmed to combat it.

Lockdown due to the Covid-19 Pandemic has literally taken a toll on the economic system of our nation. From the upper strata of the society to the lowest has been adversely affected by it. Servicemen have lost their jobs, Businessmen and professional have incurred huge losses and Laborers and migrant-workers were laid-off. Purchasing power reduced as consumers had to equate their buying capacity with the unprecedented inflation in the market. Demand remained unattained due to lack of or at least limited supplies.

Now let's talk about West Bengal, a state that is known for its intellectualism, as Gokhale rightly said What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. Bengal amidst the economic turmoil that it has been ensnarled with since ages has been left devastated by the super-cyclone Amphan.

The bone of contention of this paper is the financial hardship of parents apropos the school fees structure, during the lockdown phase. In Bengal the academic sessions in schools is usually April-March. Around the fag end of the previous session, the fateful lockdown began in Bengal.

It was that phase when parents across the State were either getting their children re-admitted to their schools for the next session or was freshly enrolling their children to the new-school after capably qualifying the entrance procedure. Procedures such as purchasing books and stationery, uniform etc. from the respective sellers partnered with each school was in progress when the unprecedented declaration of the necessary-evil; Lockdown shackled all life-activities to a somewhat stand-still situation. Parents who had this expenditure queued up had to take a pause unexpectedly.

The bee in the bonnet is:
  • Is it ethical, reasonable or justifiable on the part of the parents to intentionally delay, withhold and cease to pay the school-fees?
  • Is the constant plea No School No Fees ought to be heard?
  • Is there at all any legal sanctity attached to such rights being claimed or pressed against the school authorities?
Well, answers to these rhetorical questions are for the time being not in a very affirmative tune; at least, in case of some of the private schools around.

Legal and Constitutional Rights relating to Education:

Article 21-A of the Constitution of India provide for free and compulsory education of all children in the age group of six to fourteen years as a Fundamental Right in such a manner as the State may, by law, determine.

The DPSP enshrined under Art 39(f) and Article 45 of the Constitution, which also corresponds to Article 13(1) of the ICESCR, provides for state funded, equitable and accessible education.

Right to Education Act provided free and compulsory education to children in 2009 and enforced it as a fundamental right under Article 21-A.

Does these law apply to private schools?
The Supreme Court in TMA Pai Foundation and Ors versus State of Karnataka and Ors expressed  maximum autonomy has to be with the management with regard to administration, including the right of appointment, disciplinary powers, admission of students and the fees to be charged. The administration, all things considered, can give directions to guarantee restriction of capitation expense and profiteering by instructive organizations since their question is by definition  charitable. In this way, they can't charge such a fee, to the point that isn't required for the satisfaction of question. The court additionally said that a sensible income surplus might be produced yet just with the end goal of advancement of training and development of the foundation.
With private school's increasing their fees by 150 percent in the last decade and standards of government schools falling, a rising number of parents in metro cities are opting for the single child, an ASSOCHAM survey said.

A School is an organization that alike any other Industry[1] had to temporarily cease to operate in the usual way during the Lockdown phase but it could not have caused a closure[2] due to the pandemic. So it may be inferred that some of cost of running the Institutions were intact irrespective of the intensity of its functioning.

For example:
  • Academic Cost: Teachers, Teacher-In-Charges, HOD, Principal and every other staff related to the service of imparting education, are no longer required to be physically present in the school, yet they are doing their best over the new-found online version of e-learning. They have taken the pain to record videos, prepare and upload worksheets/homework, communicate with their students over e-classroom; through Zoom and/or Google Meeting Apps. These are undeniably more cumbersome than the practical classes that we all are so used to. The teachers are not only investing time and devoting their efforts to impart e-learning to the students but they're required to update themselves to this fast growing methodology and this new academic pedagogy.
     
  • The Transportation cost: Restricted locomotion certainly must have brought the fuel and ancillary maintenance charges to a negligible amount, if not nil, yet at the same time the transportation team comprising of say the drivers, the assistants, the head of that departments ought to have been retained, which means the expenditure in respect of their salaries is intact
     
  • The Dining Cost: Day boarding schools offer 2-3 meal to the children. It is certainly evident that the expenditure under this head must have stood reduced by at least 80%.
     
  • Maintenance Cost: School building/premises, garden, parks, swimming pools, dining hall, kitchen and essentially, in my opinion, the classrooms and the toilet do require a weekly maintenance if not daily, during the Lockdown. So the remuneration of the respective personnel responsible for the above can be reduced tad bit, but can't be chalked off completely from the balance-sheet.
     
  • The Stationeries: Stationeries (such as 200-A4 Sheet pages, 20 Sharpeners, 20 Erasers, 2 Sets of Camlin Colour Boxes (24 shades), 2 sets of faber-castle poster colours, 8 shades of play dough, bundle of colour paper, bunch of sparkles and sparkling sheets, 2 sets of Fevicol, - per preschooler-students in the classes Toddler, Nursery and KG) are required to be bought, mandatorily, at MRP from the school-counters and are kept deposited in the classroom for convenience sake.

It apparently seems parents have had little botheration about these prototypical expenses while enrolling their respective wards to these well-reputed educational organizations of their own choice. They usually never go into a confrontation, such as What exactly is the utility or justification of buying and depositing 20 erasers per candidate/student (which means minimum of 600 erasers in a class of 30 students, in one academic session)?, but this pandemic has made them explore and counter-attack on these aspects too. Several doubts, deluge of questions, compassionate pleas have clouded in the mind of parents and seemingly have united them all under a protest viz., No School No Fees.

Having discussed, roughly, the recurring fixed expenditure of the schools authorities the No School No Fees-plea or protest, whatsoever be the nomenclature, seems a distant dream and palpably unreasonable too.

Lets us have a look at the empirical study of the condition of some parents:

  • Government/PSU Job Holders:

    Mostly are less active in this protest-march. They have fixed income and expenditure, so while associating themselves with their respective schools they supposedly were well-planned to capably bear the annual fee-structure. Hence they don't have a loud voice in the march, nonetheless they are in complete agreement with the policy that reduction of fees is highly expected from the school's end.
  • Private Sector:

    • I'm literally counting my days. I may be sacked by the company post-Lockdown.  Employees of an IT Firm
    • I have not received a single penny from my employer ever since the Lockdown began. Employee of a small scale Private Ltd. Company
       
  • Businessman:

    End of March onwards not a single goods-vehicle of mine has moved. Most of my drivers have left for their respective villages hence some of the vehicles are stuck at odd places. I still need to pay their salaries and run my household. If the school authorities refuse to give me some relaxation how shall I manage my finances? - A father in transportation-business
     
  • Professionals:

    Elite class professionals are again not much bother to get into a scuffle or disagreement with the School Authorities, for the child's convenience. Yet beginners or first generation professionals do have a serious concern regarding their rights and the value for every single penny they pay. Parents have been writing letters to the Government and other influential people seeking help and support in this movement.

    A petition has been filed in the Calcutta High Court seeking directions to the Bengal government to regulate the fee structure of unaided private schools. Education minister Partha Chatterjee had urged all private schools not to increase fees after the Covid pandemic broke out.[3]

The humble requests of the distressed parents in crux:

  • Complete Waiver of school-fees for the month of March-June; and or
  • Reduction of the tuition fees by 50%; and
  • 100% Refund of transportation fees (and fees under such other heads, service relating to which are not being availed yet); and
  • No incremental-fees for this academic year should be levied.
We are yet to find out, if these demands will be deliberated upon and the protestor would get relief, if any, at all.

The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) issued a notification dated April 17, 2020 regarding payment of fees by parents in private unaided schools during lockdown period (CBSE Notification). The CBSE Notification empowered the state education departments to examine the issue of lump sum payment of school fees and teachers' salaries and authorized the state education departments of all states and union territories to decide the manner in which the fees can be collected during the lockdown period.

Pursuant to the CBSE Notification, various state education departments have issued circulars/orders notifying private schools the manner in which they are entitled to charge fees from parents. The West Bengal education department has also issued the notification dated April 10, 2020 advising the private schools in West Bengal not to increase the annual fee during the current academic year considering the current lockdown situation and to consider the matter of non-payment of school fees by the parents, if any, sympathetically.

However, beneath this debate there lies a subterranean issue that fundamentally affects the protagonists of this story; the children. The children are the centrifugal force that combines these two extreme ends.

The education system must aim to impart a holistic development in a child. A school that is believed and is often held responsible for a child's future-building, is expected to inculcate discipline, chivalry, good-habits, compassion, moral-values along with the academic-progress.

But a child's real growth is possible only when we stop buck-passing. A child is like a flower that needs nurturing ambiance to grow. Parents and teachers have to shoulder the responsibility laterally. They ought to work as a team. Lack of trust and mutual respect between parents and school-authority will only confuse the young minds. For toddlers, a class-teacher in his play-school is almost as care-giver as his mother at home. Grown up students will imbibe the sense of disrespect if they witness mud-slinging and tug of war between parents and their most cherished schools.

The legacy of being a proud alumnus of respective school ought to be passed on from generation to generation. We all are proud of being alumni of our respective schools; aren't we? and if the answer to this question is in negation, then we really need to reassess and figure out where exactly the fault lies.

In this era of post-modernism both the sides are correct in their ways. But like in a family, tad bit of compromise is sine qua non, for happiness to prevail. So is the situation is our society.

Complete denial to the humble plea of the parents and absolute lack of compassion for them shall be insensitive on part of the school authorities, who are expected to be doing a little more than just business in the society. After all school is the temple of education and despite several mishaps we still have faith in this system of education.

In a larger picture, parents are nothing less than a family to a school; both the entities have to co-exist with their inter-dependency towards each other.

For the time being, it would be wise for the parents to keep their children away from the negative vibes that they are currently going through. Let the child do his job, unaffected by this wrath. Let him peacefully enjoy his childhood, which anyway is going through a lot of turmoil. Aren't they cudgeled enough with this new normal - no-school, no-park, social distancing with peer group?

Thank God for that old-normal-childhood that we have had in our past! Changes from books to e-books, park to play-zone in shopping mall, gully-danda to video-games to PS 3 etc. were anyway happening, but this change that Covid brought to their life was drastic and immensely unfortunate. Yet, this new-generation have shown the ability to quickly adapt and capably mold them into the new societal structure.

Let's not make it worse for our little fighters.

End-Notes:
  1. Sec. 2 (j) of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 defines 'industry' as any business, trade, undertaking, manufacture, or calling of employers and includes any calling, service, employment, handicraft or industrial occupation or avocation of workmen
  2. Section 2(cc)) of Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 states Closure means the permanent closing down of a place of employment or part thereof.
  3. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/parents-move-court-on-school-fees/articleshow/75726680.cms
Written By: Advocate Pallabi Ghosh Nath (LLM, C.U.), practicing at the Hon'ble Calcutta High Court and the City Session Court.

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