"Even a single life of a student, teacher, or parent lost to COVID-19 due to this mass gathering will be an unpardonable failure of governance."

Students writing an exam amid the coronavirus pandemicImage for representation: PTI
news Opinion Friday, April 30, 2021 - 09:31

In the past few weeks, India and almost every major state have recorded their highest daily spikes ever in COVID-19 cases. A sense of complacency had seemingly set in among most sections of society after escaping relatively unscathed from the first wave. But with the second wave in full swing, every institution, at the state and national level, is now taking measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Contrary to these measures, the Andhra Pradesh government recently announced its decision to conduct Intermediate exams for 10.3 lakh students in May and Class 10 exams for 6.7 lakh students in June.

Exams for Classes 10-12 are among the most important undertakings that mark Indian summers, alongside entrance exams to premier colleges. It is simply impossible to conduct these exams by ensuring a completely safe environment involving thousands of schools, several lakh teachers, and millions of students. Even a single life of a student, teacher, or parent lost to COVID-19 due to this mass gathering will be an unpardonable failure of governance. In this grave situation, it is shocking that the Andhra Pradesh government is willing to conduct exams for 17 lakh students in the months of May and June, when the second wave is supposed to be at its worst.

Among the 20 states and union territories with the most COVID-19 cases till now, AP remains the only one that hasn’t canceled or postponed these exams. Despite having one of the lowest testing rate in south India, it showed a high positivity rate of 20% and recorded 14,792 cases on Thursday (April 29) — its highest ever spike since March 2020. In such circumstances, it is unconscionable that the state government led by Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy is risking the lives of millions of students, teachers, and parents through exams in May and June.  It diverts much-needed efforts while risking many superspreader events among 1400+ exam centres (for Intermediate exams) and 4000+ (for Class 10 exams) across the state.

These students have already been subject to an unprecedented set of pressures, studying and suffering under the shadow of a deadly pandemic. We must not further push them into a risk that has been all too familiar since March 2020. The Chief Minister was on record saying that these exams are being conducted to guard the future of students to compete with the rest of India. But this logic is faulty considering that most other states have either postponed or canceled exams for their Class 10 and Class 12 students. Any recruiter or junior college will know COVID-19 was the legitimate reason behind a student getting a ‘PASS’ instead of a transcript of marks in the years 2019-21.

An organic movement opposing the timing of these exams has been built in the last 10 days on social media, backed by the Telugu Desam Party. Till now, 4 lakh students and teachers responded with their support for canceling or postponing exams, with more than 1.8 lakh students commenting their strong disapproval for such a move. Some of these comments are heartbreaking to read. Students talk of having seen corpses, their loved ones suffering, or their neighborhoods afflicted with dozens of COVID-19 cases. Many have their grandparents living with them and are afraid of infecting them. If infected, they might survive eventually but their elders will face a graver risk.

In digital ‘Town Halls’ conducted by myself and other young leaders, a single message came across — students and parents were simply not ready for these exams in May or June. Many didn’t even demand cancellation but merely postponement. They complained of struggling with online classes with weak or non-existent connectivity, incomplete portions, and suffering through mental trauma. Should we burden them with the added fear of having to take exams under extremely unsafe conditions? What does the state government want to prove by devoting enormous time, resources, and personnel to conduct this massive exercise involving 17 lakh students, thousands of teachers and personnel, and their families? We must work to bring the pandemic under control, not give it more opportunities to ravage our already traumatised society.

On April 29, AP recorded 14,792 cases — its highest ever daily spike. It’s highest single-day spike in 2020 was 10,825 on September 5. But now, it has been averaging nearly 12,000 new cases daily for the past week. Students will be subjected to an entire month of tension and trauma, having to tackle crowded transport to exam centres, wearing masks for three hours in the summer, and doing this for three weeks.

Some estimates say that 113 teachers have passed away due to COVID-19 till now in the state. There is an atmosphere of panic and trauma among every section. It would not just be a grossly dangerous move to conduct exams now, opening up a new transmission mechanism for the virus. It would also be immoral to knowingly put our students in harm’s way, especially when every other major state and institution opted to cancel or postpone exams.

When cabinet meetings have been postponed, when employees in the state Secretariat have fallen ill or passed away due to COVID-19, when micro-lockdowns are implemented, and when work is being digitised everywhere, why must the education sector alone face the brunt of the pandemic?

The author is the General Secretary of the Telugu Desam Party and a sitting member of Andhra Pradesh's Legislative Council. Views expressed are the author's own. 

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