COVID-19 Impact Responses by State Education Regulators

Background

To tackle the COVID-19 crisis, India has seen significant legislative and policy changes. The thrust of the new rule book has been aimed at softening the blow delivered by the crisis to various stakeholders in the society, including parents and students, and in certain cases, balancing this with the interests of the school management and staff.

Following in the footsteps of its global counterparts, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has announced three successive lockdowns till date – March 25, 2020, April 15, 2020 and May 1, 2020. The guidelines issued by the MHA pursuant to the lockdowns has prohibited operation of all educational, training, research and coaching institutes. However, the MHA and the state governments have encouraged education through online medium. Various state governments had taken similar steps even prior to the issuance of the MHA guidelines, and had also passed orders promoting all students till class VIII / IX to the next class without exams.

The interim shutdown of schools has come with its fair share of peculiar challenges, with fee collection drawing the most attention. While several states have taken measures in this regard, this post highlights the actions taken in six states – Delhi[1], Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Karnataka, West Bengal and Maharashtra.

Steps taken by various State Governments

Nature of Measures: Mandatory / Advisory

Almost all six states have either recommended or mandated that schools should not force parents to make payment for the current academic year or increase fees for the next academic year (2020-21).

While certain states like Maharashtra[2] and West Bengal[3] had asked schools to be sympathetic or considerate towards parents while collecting fees for the current and next academic year, other states like Delhi[4], Tamil Nadu[5], Telangana[6] and Karnataka issued mandatory orders regulating fee collection and hikes. The nature of enforcement varies – while the Delhi notification[7] threatened action under the relevant provisions of the Delhi School Education Act, 1973, the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and Disaster Management Act, 2005 (including imprisonment up to 2 years), the Telangana notification stated that non-compliance would result in cancellation of school recognition, and invoking action against the management under the Telangana Education Act, 1982 and revocation of no-objection certificate granted for affiliation to CBSE, ICSE or IGSCE.

Even state governments that issued advisory circulars moved towards tougher enforcements of their directions. For instance, West Bengal whose initial order was more in the nature of an advisory, subsequently on April 22, 2020[8], after reiterating its earlier request (to refrain from increasing fees and to condone delay or non-payment of fees), stated that non-compliance would be viewed ‘seriously’. Similarly, Maharashtra vide circular dated May 8, 2020[9] mandated that fees should not be increased for academic year 2020-21.

Evolving Responses

The state governments, in the face of this unprecedented crisis and evolving ground realities, have also been modifying their regulations. Besides, West Bengal and Maharashtra which moved to a more mandatory regime, the Karnataka government took a more nuanced approach to school operations in light of submissions from school management.

Initially, vide circular[10] dated March 30, 2020, the Karnataka government had instructed schools to postpone the process of fee collection and admission process for academic year 2020-21 until further orders. However, keeping in mind the problems faced by private schools in providing salaries to the teaching staff, on April 24, 2020, the government instructed that parents who are capable of paying fees, be allowed to deposit the fees online, while disallowing any physical deposit of fees. It further required that fees collected first be used to discharge the salary of the teaching staff, and that schools cannot remove students who are unable to deposit the fees. On April 28, 2020, the Karnataka government further clarified that fees could be paid at one go or in installments.

Incrementalism

Many states have also adopted an incrementalist approach to tackle problems thrown up by the crisis, which in theory might be the right approach. Popular among them is directing that schools can only charge tuition fees and no other special fees, such as development fee, library fee, sports fee, etc. The governments of Telangana and Delhi have passed such orders. Other such responses adopted include bar on creation of new heads for collection of fees (Delhi), waiver of penalties for late payments (Tamil Nadu), making fee payments subject to collection on a monthly or instalment basis (Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka), exempting those who are financially distressed from paying the fees (Delhi and Karnataka) and letting the executive committee, which also has parents as members, determine if fees are to be reduced on account of fewer educational facilities being used (Maharashtra).

Online Education

It is worth noting that state governments have started recognising the relevance and criticality of online education. This is likely pursuant to the orders of the MHA, which specified that education through the online medium should be encouraged. The Karnataka Government, for example, by order dated April 18, 2020, stated that the government will not prohibit online classes conducted by private schools, while clarifying that no special fees can be charged for such classes. Similarly, the Delhi Government order states that schools must provide access to online materials or classes to all the students on a non-discriminatory basis, irrespective of whether fees are paid. A unifying theme appears to be that online education should not be denied even to those who may not be able to afford it.

Conclusion

Thus, while most states have taken cognisance of the hardships faced by students and parents primarily, and have ensured that education is not affected due to non-payment of fees, the degree in response amongst state governments is varied.

To sum it up, burden of running schools, meeting costs, paying teachers, paying rents, upkeep of infrastructure and keeping the student engaged in learning from homes, has now shifted to a significant degree on to educational institutions. The states may need to approach this with equal consideration for all stakeholders, as the situation progresses. Since restrictions on schools will be one of the last ones to be lifted; governments will also have to take a holistic view with regard to scheduling academic year 2020-21, and admissions to colleges and entrance examinations thereafter, while ensuring that students from the lesser privileged sections of the society, who do not have access to online education, are not unfairly prejudiced.


[1] We refer to Delhi as a state for simplicity.

[2] Circular No. Misc.-2020/m. No. 33/ S.M. 6 dated March 30, 2020

[3] Notification No. 137 – SSE/20 dated April 10, 2020

[4] Notification no. F.No. PS/DE/2020/54 dated April 17, 2020

[5] G.O. (Ms) No. 199 dated April 20, 2020

[6] G.O. Rt. No. 46 dated April 21, 2020

[7] Notification no. F.No. PS/DE/2020/54 dated April 17, 2020

[8] No. 139 – SSE/20 on April 22, 2020

[9] Government Resolution  No.  Misc -2020/M. No. 33/SM-6

[10] Circular no. JD.Scl.edn.PS/Co.vi.cir/32544/E.V.2020 dated March 30, 2020

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Partner in the General Corporate Practice at the Bengaluru office of Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas. Nagavalli has been closely involved in several leading acquisitions, joint ventures, real estate financing, both in public and private companies and cross jurisdictional matters. Her work spans over advisory…

Partner in the General Corporate Practice at the Bengaluru office of Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas. Nagavalli has been closely involved in several leading acquisitions, joint ventures, real estate financing, both in public and private companies and cross jurisdictional matters. Her work spans over advisory (including regulatory), strategic and transaction related matters. She also has significant exposure to labour laws and litigation. She can be reached at nagavalli.g@cyrilshroff.com.

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