Madras High Court
Madras High Court
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Online Classes amid COVID-19: Madras HC issues directions to address concerns of privacy, digital divide, access and more [Read order]

The directions aim to address issues of access to online classes, privacy, safeguards to prevent students from encountering obscene content and to ensure that Government guidelines are strictly complied with.

Meera Emmanuel

A batch of pleas raising various concerns regarding the conduct of online classes for students amid the COVID-19 pandemic today saw the Madras High Court issue comprehensive directions towards ensuring that such education continues to reach all students in a safe manner (R Bharaneeswaran and ors v. The Government of Tamil Nadu and ors).

Notably directions have been made to address issues of access to online education, privacy during online classes, safeguards to prevent students from encountering obscene or pornographic content during online classes and to ensure that Government guidelines issued on online education are strictly complied with.

In this regard, the Bench of Justices MM Sundresh and R Hemalatha have issued the following directions:

  • The guidelines issued by the Government of India and the State Government with respect to the conduct of online cases amid the pandemic are mandatory and are, thus, to be adopted and followed by all the stakeholders, particularly the Schools. It may be noted that the Central Government issued its guidelines dubbed the PRAGYATA Guidelines for Digital Education earlier this year. The State of Tamil Nadu also issued its own guidelines towards the end of July.

  • Committees are to be set up at the District levels to supervised the compliance of these guidelines. These Committees have to meet once a month.

  • The time limit for the online classes should be strictly adhered to and any violation would require action at the hands of the concerned authorities.

  • Circulars are to be issued towards blocking obscene content, to avoid the student encountering such content while attending the online classes.

  • The online education programmes conducted will have to be sent by Whatsapp to the Parents and uploaded in the school portals.

  • Schools will have to identify problems being faced by the parents and teachers in online connectivity and availability of the devices. If such problems exist, the feasibility of having classes, particularly for the Government students, through the recorded versions telecasted in community halls will have to be considered.

  • Students identified as requiring special attendance in view of the difficulties faced in online and digital education access can be allowed to attend physical classes while following social distancing. It is suggested that in a single class, a small group of students may be permitted to attend the schools by taking all the safety measures.

"Institutions are required to make a thorough inspection and find out the difficulties. In the Government schools which are maximum in number, classes can be conducted in the community halls and for those who cannot afford, steps may be taken either to provide the device, or make them to attend the classes, if they are few in numbers, while maintaining the social distancing. After all, the idea is a child shall not be made to lose the class because of any other consideration. We may note, teachers are now fully available and the class rooms are empty with the lockdown eased considerably", the Court said.
  • Schools can also explore the possibility of tachers going to the students and giving education if there exists a facility to do so.

  • The guidelines issued with respect to the attendance, test and examination will have to be strictly complied with, as should the guidelines concerning pre-primary students, the Court has specifically emphasised.

  • Schools will have to explore the possibility of having end-to-end encryption.

  • The guidelines of the State Government will have to be translated in Tamil, if not done already. The copies of the same will have to be sent to all the schools. The schools, in turn, are expected to circulate the same to the parents.

  • There shall be interaction between the Schools and the Parents on the functioning of the online/digital education, as many of them may not be digital literates.

  • Any complaints given to the support and helpline numbers will have to be looked into by the cyber crime cell and other authorities at the earliest. The complaints to the police will have to be registered immediately if an offence is made out and investigation will have to be completed at the earliest. Similarly, the complaints made to the other authorities will have to be looked into and the process of the investigation will have to be completed within a period of three months

The Court reiterated that it is not that online education is viewed as a substituted for education in the physical form. Rather, it was observed that it was a supplementary form of education that is being resorted in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, which would require the cooperation of all stakeholders to succeed.

While passing its order today, the Bench also expressed its disapproval over reports of certain schools flouting the Government-issued guidelines for the conduct of online classes. As noted in the order,

"It has been brought to our notice that there are certain Schools which are overburdening in conducting the examinations, making the attendance mandatory and taking the classes beyond the time limit mentioned in the guidelines. This, we do not approve. Though the guidelines are not stated to be mandatory, we are of the view that they are binding on the Institutions. Taking care of the interest of the children is the primary duty of the Parents, Teachers, Institutions, Government and the Court. The Directive Principles enshrined in the Constitution of India will have to be kept in mind."

Various petitioners in the matter were represented by Senior Advocate S Prabakaran for Advocate R Krishna Kumar, Advocates CM Arumugam, J Ravindran, A Syed Kaleesha (party-in-person), Leo Valam Leonard and Ajay Francis Inigo Loyola.

Advocate General Vijay Narayan, Special Government Pleader GK Muthukumar, Government Pleader V Jayaprakash Narayanan and Additional Advocate General Narmadha Sampath assisted by Special Government Pleader (Education) C Mumusamy appeared for the State respondents.

Additional Solicitor General R Sankaranarayanan assisted by Venkataswamy Babu appeared for the Central Government authorities.

Counsels LJ Venkatesh and T Gowthaman appeared for other respondents in the matter.

Read the order:

R.Bharaneeswaran and ors v. The Government of Tamil Nadu and ors.pdf
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