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Vol. XXX No. 8, August 16-31, 2020

Schooling in the ‘New Normal’ – Part 2

by A Staff Correspondent

(Continued from last fortnight)

When the lockdown descended on the city in March, Raju* felt the economic pinch immediately. An auto driver, he suddenly found himself without any patronage. With savings quickly dissolving to meet living expenses, he faced an unprecedented situation – he didn’t have enough in the kitty to pay his childrens’ school fees. Raju isn’t alone; many working class parents are struggling through the same state of affairs.

To gain a better understanding of the situation, Madras Musings spoke to Nikhath Suhail and Radha Vasudevan, whose schools deliver education to children from economically unprivileged backgrounds. Nikhath, who serves as the treasurer at the MWA Matriculation Higher Secondary School, estimates that more than half of her school students are struggling financially. “Most of the children in my school are first or second generation learners,” she explained. “The families live hand to mouth, some of the mothers keep their families afloat by working as housemaids.” A bird’s eye view of the situation would understandably lead the layman to recommend waiving school fees for struggling parents. But the matter is more complicated than that, especially for schools like Nikhath’s and Radha’s, who have to balance the needs of the students as well as the staff.

“We are not an aided school. We don’t have a trust fund built from donations, either. How can we take care of our teachers?” Nikhath points out. It’s a fair question. Her school has around 1,600 children under its wing, most of whom are continuing to receive education through digital mediums even in the lockdown, thanks to the hard work of the 60 teachers on the rolls. The staff depend on their professional income to make a living too, like everyone else. Making the best of the situation, Nikhath’s school has taken to requesting parents to pay as much as they can and is in the process of inviting public donations to offer scholarships to families who simply cannot meet the expense. The teachers have taken a 20 per cent pay cut in salaries as well, counting their blessings that they have retained their jobs. But the school is walking a narrow financial edge. “Every month is a challenge,” said a worried Nikath.

Radha, who runs a school in Ashok Nagar, underlined the importance of paying teachers by pointing out that some of them are the sole breadwinners in their families at the moment. “With the lockdown, some of their husbands have been laid off. Households which were financially healthy before the lockdown are finding themselves in trouble, since it’s been a good 4 months since the men stopped working,” she explained. Her school is in a slightly better position than most, relying on savings that can carry them for another three months. They haven’t had the necessity to cut teacher salaries yet.

Complicating matters further, the state administration had, earlier in June, issued an order to take action against private schools asking parents to make the fee payments. For unaided private schools like Nikhath’s who have little savings to rely on, this was an incredibly tricky pass to cross. The Madras High Court stepped in for their cause, with Justice R. Mahadevan raising the question, “If unaided institutions are prohibited from collecting even minimum fees, how will they pay salary, that too when almost all such institutions are conducting online classes?” Easing the woes of TN’s private educational institutions, the Madras High Court issued a directive in July permitting them to collect 40 per ent of the annual fee before the end of August. The state has also provisionally fixed this year’s fee as 75 per cent of last year’s.

While this clarifies one side of the problem, the state must also consider the way forward in supporting parents who simply cannot make the fee payments to the unaided private schools their children attend. It’s not an easy problem to solve, but it’s not one that’s going to go away anytime soon. While the state mulls the issue, citizens, generous as always, have been stepping in to bear the cost of scholarships for children in need. While we look to our government to devise a fair solution to this complex problem, it is probably worthwhile to take a minute to rejoice in our community spirit, which rises wonderfully to the occasion each time our fellow citizens need help.

*Name changed

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