With only a few months remaining for the end of the academic year, high schools and higher secondary schools have reopened in Tamil Nadu, operating with a strict SOP with checklists, mask mandates and physical distancing. Given the upcoming state elections in May, the state Education Department, which was criticised for its earlier decision to hold exams in June, sought the approval of parents in a face-saving measure. After a series of such consultative meetings, it was announced that students of Classes 10 and 12 will have physical classes from January 19.
To understand if there is merit in reopening schools now, we must look into what the government is trying to achieve. While it may be argued that opening of schools is just the next logical step in the move towards normalcy, the choice of classes makes it clear that board exams are a major reason. Further, we must also note that the decision to resume physical schools makes a relatively marginal difference for the middle-income and higher-income private schools, most of which switched to alternate modes of teaching within weeks of the announcement of lockdown. So, the decision to reopen schools seems primarily to support children in government and low-income private schools in facing their board exams that are coming up in a few months. At least 45% of the students in the state study in government schools, and further low-income private schools form a significant chunk of the private sector in the state.
That our education policy has long been centered around examinations needs no proof. But given that the pandemic has deepened and made visible inequalities among people, the question that we must ask is whether schools must operate as before? The only deviations from the status quo have been the 40% reduction in syllabus and postponement of exams. The learning loss is real. So is the sway that exams have in access to higher education. Will reopening schools really be enough to give the most marginalised of our children a realistic chance to compete? The answer would be no. Inequity between government schools and private schools is not new, neither is the argument that high stakes standardised exams already restrict marginalised students from pursuing higher education. These have been exacerbated due to the pandemic.
It also gave us a chance to rethink and rebuild the way our system worked, especially with regard to assessments and how they are connected to higher education. Unfortunately, both the Union and state governments seem to have passed on the opportunity, refusing to even think of temporary solutions to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, let alone fix deeper systemic problems. The Union government has announced that NEET and other exams can be attempted multiple times. The TN government is proud about having counsellors speak to children before classes. These measures seem to solve issues other than those that are most pressing, and this will be evident when the enrolment numbers this year reveal a much deeper chasm between children who could and could not afford to study in a big school.
An equitable way forward for the short term should involve a freeze on high stakes standardised exams like NEET, etc. for a few years, expanded affirmative action schemes for children from marginalised communities, a system of assessment that does not involve just one final examination, and getting colleges to set up foundation courses that will strengthen the basics for students. In the absence of such measures, reopening schools only seeks to absolve the government from taking real measures towards ensuring ALL children realise their right to education.