It is highly unlikely that a large population of students can be safely vaccinated by July, and likely August, too.
India’s new Covid-19 infections stood at close to 2.2 lakh on Monday, with cumulative deaths since the start of the pandemic crossing the 3-lakh mark. This makes India the third-largest nation, after the US and Brazil, to reach this level of Covid-19 fatality. Against this backdrop, the prime minister chaired a high-level meeting in which, among other things, the question of conducting senior-secondary board examinations was deliberated, as per multiple news reports.
This meeting, in turn, follows Sunday’s meeting of the Union ministry of education with the states, where most states pressed for the need to conduct the examinations soon, even as three of the worst-affected jurisdictions in the Covid second wave—Delhi, Maharashtra and Kerala—either argued for internal assessment or full vaccination of students before the exams are conducted.
There have also been reports of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) mulling over conducting the examination between July 15 and August 26. Scientists associated with at least two reputable mathematical models of the Covid-19 second wave in India believe the second wave would taper off by end-July. Several examination/assessment models have been proposed, from internal assessment to exams only for the ‘major’ subjects (of the 174 offered by the CBSE, only 20 are deemed major, and The Indian Express reports, the Board has proposed to conduct exams for only these). The CBSE has also proposed that either there be regular exams, over three months, or the sittings be cut by half with the question paper consisting of only objective and multiple-choice questions.
The online option, though much safer, is probably—and rightly—not being considered because of the inequity in terms of access and infrastructure. Even as the government—both the Centre and the states—try and work out how to conduct examinations, they need to draw a balance between the future of students (not having standard-format exams could have a bearing on this) and the present risks to their health and that of their families.
Experts have talked of a third wave, and while the government maintains that there is no evidence that this will disproportionately affect children, conducting examinations in the regular format could up the risks of spread, especially with such vast numbers still unvaccinated—a chunk of the adult population and the entire school-going population. Close to 1.5 crore are believed to have appeared for various senior-secondary board exams last year, with the CBSE alone accounting for close to a tenth of this number.
Vaccine trials for the 2-18 years age group scheduled to begin only in June—the CTRI website shows that the Covaxin trial involving participants aged 2-28 years was only registered on Monday and recruitment is to begin from Wednesday. And, assessments of immune response are being targeted for study after 28, 56, 118 and 208 days. So, it is highly unlikely that a large population of students can be safely vaccinated by July, and likely August, too.
Thus, internal assessments seem to have become a necessity.
To tackle the problems of discretional assessment—in the context of higher education admissions—this newspaper has repeatedly argued for centralised testing of university-aspirants, quite like the US SAT. While there was a similar proposal was made last year, nothing seems to have taken off on the ground. The Centre and the states need to quickly work on this.