The burden of being an Indian parent during COVID-19
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The burden of being an Indian parent during COVID-19

On June 30, the High Court of Punjab & Haryana practically allowed private schools to charge new admission fees, annual charges, and tuition fee, irrespective of whether or not the school is rendering online classes.

Vikas Singh

While the outbreak of the global pandemic has brought forth the plight of the healthcare worker and the migrant labourer, there is one key stakeholder who has not received deserved attention – the Indian parent.

Since March 2020, safety concerns and lockdown measures have kept schools closed throughout the country. With such an unprecedented break in the regular flow of education and extra-curricular school activities, the parents of school-going children are facing immense stress about the future of their wards and as to how they will meet their educational and career goals in a post COVID-19 world. While some schools have pushed for online classes and material, there is little substitute for a hands-on, personally interactive teaching environment with a class teacher.

As if this psychological and emotional stress was not enough, parents of students enrolled in private schools in Punjab have to now face an additional financial stress of paying “full tuition fees” even if the private school in question does not offer such online classes and education.

On June 30, a Single Judge Bench of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana has practically allowed a writ petition filed by private schools permitting them to charge new admission fees, annual charges as per expenses incurred and tuition fee from parents, irrespective of whether or not the school is rendering online classes.

The petition had been filed by the private schools challenging the Punjab government's orders of May 14 which had prohibited the charging of such fees in view of the schools being closed. The government had ordered that only allowed tuition fee can be charged to the extent that such online classes were being offered. The state’s orders had forbidden schools from collecting other charges such as building fee, transportation charges and cost of meals etc. as they were not being used by the students in view of the school closure.

This, despite the fact that the law is well settled that the courts, in the exercise of their jurisdiction, will not transgress into the field of policy decision. The High Court’s order is extremely insensitive to the large number of parents who already ailing due to job loss and economic impact of the COVID crisis. Since the High Court has now given a free rein to the schools to collect tuition fee irrespective of whether they are offering online classes, the parents are in effect being required to pay for the services which are not even being rendered or even offered by the schools.

The High Court judgment has also allowed the charging of annual charges based on “actual /genuine expenditure” of the schools, which is a complete free hand to the schools to charge, as no parent will ever be in a position to know or even question what a school's “actual expenditure” may be.

The set approach of the judgment is betrayed from the finding that “affluent parents” of children studying in private schools are in a sound position to pay for the fees. This sad observation ignores the harsh reality of the Indian parent - not every one of them is “affluent”. Even so, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected large business houses, conglomerates and industries at large, with many global entities declaring bankruptcy. The Indian parent, no matter how “affluent”, is also a hapless victim.

While its heart bleeds for the financial hardship of the school managements and their fixed costs, the judgment totally ignores the financial hardship of a parent and their fixed costs. India is among the top-most affected countries in the world and according to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), over 122 million people in India have lost their jobs in April following coronavirus outbreak.

Secondly, parents claim that schools are merely conducting 2-3 online sessions daily even though the daily requirement is of 7-8 classes, as per standards set by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), Punjab School Education Board (PSEB), and Indian Certificate of Secondary Examination (ICSE). Hence, from the parents’ point of view, it is unfair to pay the fee in totality for fewer number of classes.

Such classes, even when availed, are subject to inconsistent internet connections. For the children belonging to low economic groups or living in rural areas, these classes are practically inaccessible. Hence, the Punjab government rightly restricted the absurd move of the private schools.

Many argue that with online classes, the responsibility of teaching and accompanying and supervising such classes has in fact shifted on parents. The infrastructure which is being used, if any, is that of the teachers at their homes and that of the parents at the home of the child. They need to invest in good quality internet connections, laptops and other systems. This raises a pertinent question as to how just and humane this order is.

None of the other activities such as computers, sports, dance classes etc which would otherwise form part of the tuition fee are even being conducted by the schools. Since the school building is not open, there is no costs of sanitization, meals, transportation, cleaning, or any infrastructure.

Another crucial point that the High Court has failed to examine is that the private unaided schools have surplus money to the tune of crores, which are reflected from assessment of their balance sheets. The High Court order has unfairly pitted an individual against an institution and even in this unfair fight, a simple reading of the High Court order dated June 30 shows that financial data of the schools was never placed by either party, which the High Court ought to have examined before withdrawing relief from the parents.

Yet, surprisingly, the judgment assumes the financial hardship of the schools, and on the other hand, finds fault with the parents for not having “proved financial hardship”.

Ironically, the High Court of Punjab & Haryana is the only High Court in India to have passed such an order. In line with Punjab, various other states had also passed similar orders prohibiting the collection of such fees. These include Delhi, Chandigarh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh etc. Most High Courts in the country have dismissed such petitions on the ground that these were policy decisions being taken by the government in view of the unusual COVID-19 situation. Ironically, when it came to Punjab and Haryana, the High Court did not grant any relief to the schools.

Clearly, the parents in the two states and their school-going children are being taught the lesson of a lifetime.

The author is a Senior Advocate and former Additional Solicitor General of India.

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