Mind the Gap

The coronavirus pandemic sneaked up and unmasked and exacerbated the asymmetry present in our education system. The pandemic hit hard each and every life in the country in various ways. The effect of pandemic on various institutions, organizations, sectors, and administration bears both long-term and short-term implications. The one major hit in this pandemic was taken by the students across the world. The immediate steps for prevention, even much before the central government-imposed lockdown, was state ordering to close the educational institution under its jurisdiction. UNESCO estimates that around 1.86 billion of children in 186 countries have been affected by the pandemic. The education across each and every level suffered a hit from the pandemic and disproportionate effect were observed. The article is divided into three broad heads – The shift to digital learning in school and colleges, Assessment in online learning, the effect on entrances and other such eligibility test and then concludes with key takeaways as we move to a transition year where the educational institution have started re-opening.

Shift to Digital learning – The rejoicement to get indefinite vacation in the month of March was rather short-lived. The surging cases and expedient stringency on lockdown hurried the educational institutions to online platforms for conducting classes. The private schools and few government institutes of higher education began to disseminate education via platforms like Zoom and Google Meet. The government schools soon followed the lead. The shift to a digital mode of learning which when actually happened in the higher strata of society who had access to internet and devices to have a lecture on, raised concerns of well being and mental health of the child who is being exposed to the screen for such a long period of time. On the flip side very few government schools actually followed through or took seriously their duty to educate children amidst pandemic.

The students enrolled in the educational institutes who started to run their programmes digitally, were more often than not had a privileged background to support this mode of learning. The lack of access to infrastructure needed for digital learning drove various students to commit suicide.

The students snuggling up in their blankets while online classes ran in the background might have not known that various other students like them, somehow surviving the pandemic were being left behind and had no idea what to do about it. The digital divide has been stark and its effect will soon be seen in this transition year.

Assessment examination in Online education- the sudden halt in the day to day life has particularly hit the educational institution. Students in the college had time or rather a privilege to wait for further clarification. However, pupil in their final year of education, whether school or college were worst affected. This transitory phase was fraught of conflicting and confusing guidelines or course of action coming from various authorities. Lack of clarity for prolonged time was a question mark on future of pupils who had planned to enter into professional arena or applied to foreign universities for further studies. The continuous rise in COVID cases, the probability of conducting any exams getting bleak, UGC came up with guidelines for Universities to conduct examinations for granting degree to final year students. This move received massive uproar and various petitions were filed against UGC, Ministry of Human Resource, and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

The expert committee constituted by the University Grants Commission submitted guidelines to conduct examination for final year examination by 31st of June. This move was submitted to be extremely arbitrary, whimsical and detrimental to the health and safety of the students as well as violative of fundamental rights of lakhs of students. The state governments cited lack of transport, education centers becoming health centers or quarantine centers, and logistical difficulties that might be faced by the students.

The legal contentions that were specifically pointed out were, if State’s Disaster Management Authority in exercise of jurisdiction under Disaster Management Act, 2005 can take a decision not to hold examination disregarding the direction in the UGC guidelines and award degrees based on previous semester or internal assessment. The technicalities of the UGC guideline such as “consultation” “co-ordination and determination of high standards” and “ground of non-compliance’ under sec. 12 of UGC act of 1956.

The court adjudicated that ample latitude was given to universities and college to conduct online, offline, or hybrid tests. The court opined that guidelines have some statutory force and cannot be ruled out by the universities by terming them statutory and advisory. The court ruled there has been no violation of fundamental rights as the principle of ‘intelligible differentia’ has been applied and proper guidelines has been given for conducting exams in view of health and well-being of students and staff. The court giving paramount importance to maintaining “high standards in higher education” upheld the guideline muffling the concerns from all around the country.

After much ado the authorities finally conducted JEE, NEET and other such entrance exams, this was done in offline scenario with restrictions. However, since most of the time lockdown disproportionately affected the ability and preparedness of student to give the examination. PILs were not entertained regarding these examinations and one entered were disposed off by giving vague directions to the government.

Key Takeaways for the upcoming year – As various states have started to re-opening their institutes, the effect of all of this is a learning gap between what students would have typically learned and what they have actually learned. While the full impact of this will be revealed in the forthcoming months, it is safe to say that it will be especially severe in college-bound students who are losing out on learning aspects critical to making a successful transition to post-secondary education. The demand for extending the school year have gone to deaf ears as various Boards of education have released their date-sheet of board examination.

The school should emphasize on extending this school year and make sure that they demarcate a particular period as a transition period to bring students at par with each other.

Conclusion – The outbreak exposed the inherent shortcomings of education system. The effects around the country are varying with socio-economic and other factors. The implementation of entrance examinations, the plan to go ahead with boards examination shows the relentlessness of the education system to pause and to not leave students behind. The only hope is the proper planned curriculum in this year of online-offline transition.

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Kirit P. Mehta School of Law Publications