Don’t burden schools; Delhi HC order on digital-gap misses some ground realities

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September 22, 2020 6:15 AM

At such a time, the state needs to facilitate schools and students alike, perhaps by procuring and distributing gadgets and servicing data costs for the needy rather than passing on the responsibility to the schools.

It disapproved of the several reliefs, like providing gadgets and 4G internet packs to students by the varsities, sought in the PIL and said "what is the harm in asking for it".It disapproved of the several reliefs, like providing gadgets and 4G internet packs to students by the varsities, sought in the PIL and said "what is the harm in asking for it".

The intent of the Delhi High Court (HC) surely was admirable—to ensure that no child gets left behind in terms of school education that is now being delivered digitally by many schools, thanks to the pandemic making regular classes an infection threat. But, its one-size-fits-all solution—last week, it ordered all schools, government and private, to provide digital devices and internet packs free to EWS/disadvantaged group (DG) students—will compound the problem.

The court said if schools have decided to provide tuitions online, then they must ensure that EWS & DG students have access; failure to do so would be tantamount to “digital apartheid” and would be in violation of the Right to Education law. To be sure, the court made it clear that private, unaided schools will be entitled to claim reimbursement of “reasonable cost for procurement” of the gadgets/internet package from the state government under RTE. However, as a report in The Indian Express (IE) points out, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip.

As per the IE report, the distinction between fee-paying and EWS students is wafer-thin, mostly a matter of getting picked in the lottery draw or having the necessary documents to prove EWS status, in small private schools (popularly called budget private schools). Indeed, 10-15% of students who didn’t have access to digital devices/internet in some of these schools belonged to both the fee-paying and EWS categories.

So, while the HC said that by not providing equipment to EWS/DG students, the private schools were putting a financial barrier before such students in accessing digital tuitions, at the budget private schools, the order itself seems to be a barrier for fee-paying, but non-EWS students who still can’t afford the gadgets/data packs. This is no small problem, given there are, as per the National Independent Schools Alliance (NISA), about 41,000 students in such schools in the national capital. Attempting to resolve an imagined “segregation” could end up making matters worse.

That apart, as per the findings of a NISA survey published earlier this month, fee payment at budget schools in the national capital during the period of the lockdown has fallen to 25% of the normal. With such low fee realisations—likely due to depressed wages/lost jobs in the fee-paying households—burdening schools with procurement and distribution of gadgets, and servicing data costs, against uncertain reimbursement by the state (the reasonable costs rider) could prove back-breaking for the small schools.

At a time when, despite low fee realisations, they have invested in rolling out digital tuitions, involving infrastructure, talent, training, etc, costs, this will be patently unfair. A recent study, cited in a report by The Times of India, found that 1,000 schools—most of them with an annual fee under `50,000—were up for sale following the pandemic hitting their finances. At such a time, the state needs to facilitate schools and students alike, perhaps by procuring and distributing gadgets and servicing data costs for the needy rather than passing on the responsibility to the schools.

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