“What was the fault of these children and teachers? How do our schools survive post-pandemic?”

Gaurav Girija Shukla lives in a small town named Arang, 40 kms from Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur. Nearly 20 years back, his parents opened a school in Arang. Over the years, the school has been providing affordable and quality education to underprivileged children living in nearby villages. The parents of these children belong to lower-middle income groups, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, or are farmers and daily wagers. The founders even managed to open two additional branches in far-flung villages. And then came the prolonged pandemic. As of today, the small branches have shut, and the main branch is at the mercy of the personal savings of the founders. Hearts of hearts, they know it’s time to pack up. Shuklas are not alone. There are a little over four lakh low-cost private schools in the country. Due to the ongoing pandemic, tens of thousands of these budget schools have either shut or are on the verge of shutting. For schools in villages or small towns, the demise was slow and painful. In this first-person account, Shukla uses his school as a case study to give us a larger perspective.

Gaurav Girija Shukla

Case study 1

Kajal Chandrakar is presently studying in Class 8. Her family has always struggled to make ends meet. Her father is an alcoholic who often abuses his wife as well as Kajal and her younger brother Kundan. He creates a scene every time his wife spends money on books and notebooks. Kajal is a bright and enthusiastic student. She has to commute for an hour and change two buses to reach school, but she never complained.

Our school shut in 2020 after a nationwide lockdown was imposed. Kajal had to spend 24 hours in that toxic environment. In the absence of proper digital equipment, her education suffered. When the school reopened for a few days just before the second covid wave hit in 2021, she was very happy. However, we noticed that there was a significant dip in her grasping abilities. These children, whose parents are not educated, often gain from peer learning. Because of the long absence from the classroom, her enthusiasm level has gone down.

Case study 2

We had a teacher in our school named Gulshan Chandrakar. After completing his Engineering, he could not find a job. The financial condition of his family was not very stable, and he had old parents to look after. So, he accepted a job as a teacher at our school. Though he was not a trained teacher, he was good with children and taught them math in a very simple manner. Sincere and dedicated, he was with us for five years. Owing to many factors, which I shall write about in this story, we struggled to give salaries to our teachers regularly during the prolonged pandemic. He had no option but to move on and today he is working at a medical store.              

For years, the school has been providing affordable and quality education to underprivileged children

While the above-mentioned case studies are from the school run by our family-owned non-profit Abhikalp Foundation at Arang, nearly 40 kms from Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur, you will get to hear thousands of such stories from across India. The pandemic has managed to shake the foundations of our education system and the primary victims have been the budget or low-cost private schools (LCPS).

As per the National Independent School Alliance (NISA), there are over four lakh low-cost private schools in India spread across metros, Tier I and Tier II cities, districts, towns, and villages.

Besides, under the Right to Education Act, the government provides free and compulsory elementary education (Class I to 8) to all children. In 2020, there were 10.83 lakh government schools in the country. Parents who are not satisfied with the quality of education at these government schools, often enroll their children in budget or low-cost private schools. In small towns and villages, parents of children studying in such schools fall into the lower-middle class category. They mostly are farmers, daily wage earners, or those who do odd jobs for survival. For most, incomes are cyclic.

While it’s extremely satisfying to provide quality and affordable education to these underprivileged children, running these schools is challenging even under normal circumstances. The pandemic has dealt a massive blow and tens of thousands of such budget schools are on the verge of shutting down permanently. While one can never be prepared for an unprecedented and sudden event like a global pandemic, could we have done something differently to avoid the complete closure of so many low-cost private schools? Can we do something now?

I am not an expert in the field of education, so I won’t be able to comment on what the government should or should not have done. All I know is, for two decades, starting from 2003 until now, my parents – Girija Shukla and Dhruv Kumar Shukla — and I have put in all our efforts so that underprivileged children living in and around Arang could get quality education. This school caters to 30 villages nearby, and, for most children, this school is the only option. Our dream has crashed.

The school won’t survive for one more year unless some miracle happens. On most days, the dinner table conversations are about winding up and moving on. With an emotional heart, I urge you to read this piece. After all, it’s not just about our school. There are thousands of budget schools that have shut or will eventually shut.

Before the pandemic, the school strength was 400. Today, less than 200 students are enrolled

The collapse in a chronological order …

Lockdown confusion

The timing of the 2020 lockdown, which was announced in March, dealt a blow to us. Parents of most children studying in our school are not in a position to pay school fees (Rs 6,000-12,000 annually, excluding transport) at the start of the session or on a regular basis. We don’t insist. Most pay the fees at the end of the session before the final exams. Because of the lockdown, the exams could not take place and the school had to be shut down. So, parents could not pay the school fees. That was the beginning of the end.

In 2021, again, the timing of the second wave and the subsequent lockdown (March-April) coincided with the end of our session. Due to the second lockdown and the closure of the school, again, parents chose not to pay the fees. So, technically, we have not been able to collect 100% school fees from the 2019 session onwards.

It was a tricky situation. We could not pressurize or urge the parents to pay the fees as most of them had lost their jobs during the lockdowns or could not earn. So, though many of them chose not to pay the school fees due to the financial crunch, there was nothing we could do to make them pay.

Imagine our plight when the third wave hit in the beginning of 2022. We are nearing the end of yet another session and the schools have just reopened. For us, there is a lot of anxiety regarding school fees which takes care of a chunk of our expenses.

The digital divide

Here’s a harsh reality. In the Adivasi belt that we are functioning in, there are people who, with great difficulty, manage to buy one basic mobile. Smartphones are a luxury item. Families with two smartphones are almost non-existent. Parents of most of the students studying in our schools have one smartphone, the purpose of which is to send messages and make calls. Because of severe network issues, these smartphones are not used extensively. Most parents are not educated. They were not in a position to help children with online classes or help them with their homework. There was no one to help them resolve the technology and network-related issues.

Similarly, teachers in our school are not trained teachers. They don’t come from very affluent families, so they are in possession of basic gadgets. It was a struggle for them too to learn tasks like conducting classes on Zoom or Team Meet, sharing screens, uploading, and downloading documents or giving assignments and correcting homework online. It was next to impossible to teach all these things to children sitting in far-flung villages. Poor network was our biggest roadblock.

When they somehow managed to get hold of these things, the administration decided to allow teachers to come to school and conduct online classes. That posed newer challenges. When nothing seemed to be working, we even hired a few volunteers who taught different subjects to children, but it was, at best, a temporary solution.

Confusion regarding school fees

In April 2020, Bhupesh Baghel, the chief minister of Chhattisgarh, tweeted saying: “Many private schools are sending messages to students’ parents to deposit school fees. It is not appropriate to pressurize them for fees at such times. All schools have been instructed to postpone the recovery of fees during coronavirus lockdown in Chhattisgarh.”

After many small-scale schools reached out to the administration complaining that the school fee is their only means to pay the salaries of the teachers, the High Court, in July 2020, said the schools were allowed to collect only the tuition fees.

The financially stable private school welcomed the decision, but parents of children studying in schools like ours were not happy. They were of the view that since the school was not functioning and the online classes were proving to be too chaotic wherein children were not learning properly, they should be exempted from paying any fees at all. Even after reducing the fees to half, we could not convince them to pay up. In such a situation, we could not pay our teachers regularly.

Because of the fund crunch, our investments started taking a hit. Let me give you an example. Just before the lockdown, we had bought two school buses for the convenience of children living in faraway villages. That was a very big investment worth lakhs of rupees. We have hardly used the buses, but to date, we are paying the EMIs. The buses are just parked in the compound for the past two years, and that’s pinching us financially. Now we are using our personal savings to pay the EMIs. I know many instances wherein school buses owned by low-cost private schools have been seized by the finance companies because of their inability to pay up.

Students switching to government schools 

Because the parents were not willing to or were not in a position to pay school fees, many of them withdrew the admission of their children from budget schools and enrolled them in government schools where there was no obligation to pay any fees. This rampant switch happened because for these parents who are not educated, educating their children is not a high priority, especially when there is a severe financial crunch and arranging for even two meals a day is a task.

As per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2021, which assessed enrolment patterns, tuition trends and smartphone access of children in rural areas, the government school enrolments had risen from 64.3% in 2018 to 70.3% in 2021. The corresponding decline in private school enrolments has been from 32.5% in 2018 to 24.4% in 2021. In Chhattisgarh, in the 6-14 age group, enrolment in government schools increased from 76.4% in 2018 to 82.9% in 2021.

In our school, before the lockdown, 400 students were enrolled. Today there are less than 200. The students who moved out had been with us from the beginning. We had invested our time, energy, and efforts in them. It was heartbreaking.

Confusion regarding transfer certificates

The shift from low-cost private schools to government schools began in 2020 itself and parents started approaching the schools to get transfer certificates. After some budget schools refused to hand over the transfer certificate saying the parents had to clear the dues first, the state administration intervened.

Soon after, the School Education Department sent a letter to all District Collectors and District Education Officers and urged them to ensure admission of all students leaving private schools. The letter mentioned that during the time of admission of these students, their transfer certificate or earlier class mark sheet should not be demanded. Now, the parents were not under any obligation to clear the dues before cancelling the admission. These flip-flops from the parents and the administration further complicated the situation for us.

Now, either the schools are shut, or half the students have moved out

Just after the second covid wave in 2021, at least 500 private budget schools in Chhattisgarh shut down. Most of these private schools were running in rented buildings and they had to wind up due to their inability to pay the rent. The school managers informed the education department of the state about the closure of their schools. Due to this, the future of about one lakh students who were studying in these schools, was in limbo.

It was unfortunate, but the schools that were running in rented buildings were not as unfortunate as us. Winding up was not difficult for them. In case we have to shut down, what will happen to the school buildings? The school buses? There is a playground and a small computer lab. What do we do with all this? The government guidelines say schools will have to follow proper covid protocols after the schools reopen. We don’t have the money to give salaries. How do we sanitize the whole building periodically?

Hence, at this stage, we don’t know if it makes sense to keep the school running for one more year, with half the student strength and teachers who have lost the enthusiasm and motivation.

Plight of children studying under the Right to Education Act

In Chhattisgarh, as many as 60 lakh students are enrolled in 57,000 private and government schools combined in an academic session. Around 15 lakh students are enrolled in 6,615 private schools of which 31,317 students are studying free of cost under RTE on 25% of the seats. Because of the closure of the private schools in such a large number, about 20,000 students who were studying free of cost in these schools under the RTE Act have also been deprived of free education.

In my school, most of the students who are still enrolled are RTE students. Briefly, the central government releases funds to the state government, the state government releases funds to the schools and that’s how the fee of these children gets paid. It’s a long-winding process. However, there has been a delay in the release of funds from the central government. It’s a double whammy. And, in case, if we have to shut our school, I have no idea what will happen to these children studying under the RTE.

No help from the government, no policy changes  

India’s education sector has received a 11% hike in the 2022 Union Budget this year. Many interesting schemes have been rolled out. However, school managers like us, who were looking for specific measures to bring the education system back on track, are disappointed. We have many questions. Like, will individual schools get financial help? What happens to low-cost private schools? How do we sustain ourselves post pandemic? What about the students who have moved to government schools? Do these schools have the infrastructure to educate so many students? What if there is a fourth wave, and a fifth? What happens to the existing infrastructure if I have to shut down my school? Will I get some waiver on the school buses that have costed me lakhs? Lastly, what was the fault of these children and teachers? How do our schools survive post-pandemic?

Gaurav Girija Shukla is based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. He is the owner of Sangyaa PR and Abhikalp Foundation, which runs the school in Arang.  

This story is a joint effort between Shukla and The Good Story Project’s Swati Subhedar. While Shukla provided case studies, story material, and images, The Good Story Project was responsible for conceptualizing, writing, and structuring the story. Please note that images used in the graphics have been sourced from Abhikalp Foundation and have been used for representation purposes only. They have nothing to do with the data being provided in the graphics.

Also read: When these children living in Adivasi hamlets in Aarey, Mumbai, got smartphones, they danced with joy!

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Swati Subhedar

Meaningful conversations, ginger tea, Maggi, playing Tennis, backpacking, travelling, exploring, photography, adventures, meeting interesting people, mountains, beaches, and dramatic sunsets ... these are just some of the uncomplicated things that keep me going.

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