Education: Why the show must go on Back

August 24, 2020

Originally Published In

Many industries are opening because of such souls; factories are being unlocked and the discussion has veered now on to when and how schools will reopen.

Even when Covid-19 has compelled all of us into a collective languor, there are people across India and abroad who have continued to trod their path cautiously with preventive measures, epitomising the charaiveti, charaiveti (keep moving, keep moving) mantra. Many industries are opening because of such souls; factories are being unlocked and the discussion has veered now on to when and how schools will reopen.

Just recently, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned that the world is facing a “generational catastrophe” due to the ongoing closure of schools. More than 1,500 members of London’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, in a statement last month (actually, it was an open letter to the British premier), termed the lockdown as a case of ‘cure worse than the disease’. Countries like Denmark, South Africa, Finland, etc., have made more or less successful attempts to restart their schools, where students are divided into smaller batches  and given entry into the school with masks and social distancing made mandatory.

According to Arnaud Fontanet, Head of the Epidemiology of Emerging Diseases Unit at the Institut Pasteur, children below 11-12 years are less likely to spread the transmission. He says middle school students are more likely to catch the infection in school while those at the primary school level are more prone to getting infected at home. Possibly because of this, Netherlands has cut down on the number of students in each class by half but has refrained from imposing social distancing for children below 12 years. Denmark too has put restrictions on the number of students per class.

The emphasis is on conducting classes out in the open, so much so that some classes are held even in cemeteries. Germany and Brazil too are experimenting with smaller class strengths. India has not reopened schools as yet, but several states have come up with innovative solutions combining online and offline measures. Andhra Pradesh started a helpline to address study-related problems faced by students. Over 200-odd teachers man this helpline and provide guidance to callers.

Arunachal Pradesh has roped in radio to reach out to students in the far-flung areas. Assam and Bihar have used a mobile app to take the school to each household. Sikkim has started a Facebook channel for its students. Pankhe village in Pune district has launched a novel campaign with the slogan ‘Schools closed, Education continues’ while using WhatsApp tutorials. On the one hand, schools and managements are trying especially hard to ensure that students do not miss out on anything.

And on the other, there are states that are opposing conducting the final year examination for degree students. Considering that a return to normalcy is generally high on the agenda of state governments, a reluctance to conduct examinations is eyebrow-raising. Those opposing final year examinations fail to gauge the damage that such a move would do to the careers of lakhs of students. A few decades ago, a massive fire in the godown where the answer sheets of students of Class 10 of the Maharashtra SSC board examinations were stored burnt everything down to ashes.

The state was constrained to declare all those who had appeared for the exam as passed. However, even decades thereafter, all of them are pooh-poohed and referred to as the batch of ‘burnt SSC’! Those opposing final year exams must understand that they are forcing a complete batch of these students to carry this stamp of ‘passed-without-exam’ on their forehead for their entire lifetime, without any fault of theirs. ‘No examination’ may appear as an easy, and therefore alluring, way to create an impression that the problem is solved.

However, advocates of this policy forget that this may create a permanent inferiority complex in the minds of the batch of 2020! Those who see no wrong in appointing fellow party workers as Gram Panchayat administrators or those who occupy the top position in a political party  simply because of their belonging to a particular dynasty may not find ‘promotion sans examination’ odd. However, for a crass populist move like this, students and their families will be paying a heavy price in the future.  

This, of course, is not to suggest that the threat of the pandemic is not serious enough. But the challenge thrown by the pandemic has to be met with a catch-the-bull-by-its-horns approach! If a village teacher in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra can use a microphone for a public lecture on a lesson in geography which the students are made to listen to sitting at their homes, if a variety of social media platforms could be put to use for disseminating education elsewhere, avoiding examinations of final year students is like surrendering before the challenge. To start with, at least this mindset of helplessness needs to be done away with.

Once we overcome this, efforts for finding solutions could be taken to a different level. Let’s take the example of university examinations. Had universities experimented with what is called the question bank system, we could have found ourselves in a position to have hassle-free examinations. Under this, typically, a bank of 100 questions is announced right at the start of the academic year. At the time of final year examinations, students are expected to attempt any, say, 15 questions that are decided by a lottery draw.

This way, examinees in every classroom face a different set of questions, thereby absolutely negating the threat of a question-paper leak. Moreover, in a Covid-19-like situation, one can have multiple batches of students for the same exam to comply with the limit on the number of examinees at a time.
Extraordinary situations demand extraordinary solutions. It is convenient to go for a compromise, easy to give up on set standards and norms, and perhaps alluring to take a populist position. But to be steadfast on certain issues needs courage of conviction. Let’s hope that the same will not be in short supply in the larger interest of all. After all, ‘The show must go on’ will have to be the spirit!