5 JULY 2020

Schools Online- Legal & Policy Updates

BY NIVEDITA KRISHNA

With the Unlock III guidelines being released, in-school education is not poised to resume until August 31st . Covid -19 has had a strong impact on education:


  • Online teaching/learning models are still evolving
  • Many schools have been forced to shut down
  • Pre-schools have suffered massive economic losses
  • Teachers have lost their jobs and/or salaries
  • Education for children from socially & economically disadvantaged groups has stopped
  • Children have suffered the impact with decreased social interaction
  • Non-school education has proliferated in an unchecked manner with little or no regulation


While education during the pandemic might not be a top concern of the state, High Courts across the country have responded to pleas of maintaining the balance among –

  • the social inequalities that are likely to grow deeper during these times.
  • the economics of running an educational institution &
  • the need for continued education,


Let us look at some significant high court decisions:

Karnataka High Court 


The Department of Education had initially issued a circular directing all schools to stop online education. Upon writ petitions challenging this circular, on June 27, the government modified its previous order and allowed schools to conduct classes from lower KG to 5th standard while abiding by the guidelines that have been laid down by the authorities. 

The state argued that this was an interim arrangement to ensure that noone is deprived of education on account of inaccessibility to internet. Eventually, the Court struck down the circular as being unconstitutional & held that:

  • The orders issued are violative of Articles 21 and 21A of the Constitution. 
  • The fact that the state cannot extend facilities of online education to all schools cannot be a ground to restrict the provision of online education by certain schools. 


However the Court’s interim order should not be construed to mean that: 


  • Online education should be made compulsory. 
  • Extra fees should be charged for such education.
  • Students who do not opt for this model of education should be deprived of their regular education when the schools re-start. 


Madras High Court


  • A PIL was filed asking the High Court to put a stay on the conduct of online education till proper guidelines regulating these are framed. However, the HC refused to stay the conduct of online classes.
  •  In another matter the court while hearing a challenge to the government order dated April 20, 2020, which restrained private schools from collecting fees in view of COVID-19 lockdown, asked the Federation of Association of Private schools in Tamil Nadu to formulate a scheme with respect to collection of fees, not based on the fee structure framed by the Committee, but in installments for a while, without prejudice to the rights of the parents and children by way of detailed representations and submit the same to the Government.


Bombay High Court


The Bombay HC in a number of cases dealing with provision of education during COVID-19 has held as below:

  • The Maharashtra government does not have the power to issue orders interfering with the fees structure of private unaided schools or schools of other boards.
  • The management of the private unaided schools may allow parents/students to pay the fees in instalments and also to pay such fees through online mode. 
  • Online education is permitted & the state government shall not take any coercive action against those schools who are conducting online classes for students up till class 2. 
  • Schools cannot take any action against parents of students of class 2 and below, who do not want their children to attend online classes. 


Delhi High Court


Some observations of the Delhi HC are: 

  • No fee (new or old) shall be charged except a monthly tuition fee. 
  • Fee structure would continue as the last academic year. 
  • Online education should be provided to all students without any discrimination. 
  • Monthly salary of teaching and non-teaching staff should not be stopped citing shortage of funds. 
  • Private schools can prevent students from attending online classes if they have not paid the fees. 
  • The court has also laid down guidelines regulating the provision of ID and password for online classes. 


Calcutta High Court


Calcutta HC adjourned the case which pertained to alleged fee hike, charging of late fees and other such issues during lockdown, on account of a dialogue which is going on between the state government and the private schools in this regard. 

 

Madhya Pradesh High Court


The state government had passed an order asking the private schools affiliated to CBSE to charge only tuition fee. The MP HC stayed this order. However, it asked the private schools not to charge expenses such as transportation or mess fee, which are not being incurred during the lockdown. 

 

Telangana/Andhra Pradesh High Court


The Court refused to restrict the imparting of online education by private schools, however, it asked the state government whether clear guidelines regulating online education have been framed. 

 

Are there any Guidelines Governing Provision of Online Education?


General guidelines have been issued by MHRD called the Pragyata Guidelines which need to be taken into account while imparting digital education. Some of the key guidelines are: 

  • A fixed number of hours of screen time for each level of school (primary, kindergarten, secondary etc.) should be determined. 
  • A balance between on-line and off-line work
  • Ensure child safety and welfare at all times including measure for cyber-safety
  • Inclusive education for children with special needs
  • Use of television/radio as an alternate medium where affordability is a concern.

Despite such policy interventions, different schools are following different pedagogic practices. Educationists and psychiatrists are of the view that prolonged screen time will impact the physical and mental health of children. Parents are concerned that children are not productively engaged long enough. Children miss the social interaction that school offered. The efficacy of the online mode as a medium of education is yet to be formally assessed, and this pandemic offers a wonderful window of opportunity to do just that.



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