Vaccinating teachers, students for board exams should've begun in January; offline exams risky now: Activist Anubha Sahai

For the past several weeks, students across Maharashtra have protested proposals to hold Class 10 and 12 board examinations in physical mode despite the steep rise in COVID-19 cases. Among the activists at the forefront of these protests is Anubha Shrivastava Sahai, lawyer and president of the India Wide Parents Association.

Speaking to Firstpost, Sahai said that if board exams are held offline in the prevailing circumstances, it could ‘lead to yet another wave of coronavirus.’ She also questioned why the Centre and state governments did not take up vaccination of teachers and students earlier as a way of making physical board examinations safer.

Similar sentiments have been echoed by students agitating in Maharashtra, particularly in Mumbai. On 3 April, a group of Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) students gathered at Dadar’s Shivaji Park to press these demands. While some students claimed that they were lathi-charged, the police denied having used force.

With the HSC exams scheduled to begin from 23 April and SSC exams from 29 May, the students’ protests are expected to gain further steam in the coming days. In this backdrop, on 6 April, Sahai coordinated a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #CancelBoardExams2021 to oppose offline examinations.

In the following interview, she expressed her views on the risks of holding board exams in the present situation and possible alternatives. Edited excerpts follow:

Why do you believe board exams should not be held as scheduled?

You can see the extent of the spread of COVID-19 in our country, as well as the state of our medical infrastructure. There have been several reports of critically ill patients not getting beds. This is the situation as of now when board exams are not being held. What will things be like when exams are held? Lakhs of students, teachers and non-teaching staff members will be exposed to a great amount of risk.

Some have suggested vaccinating teachers and students could be a solution...

The vaccination process will be a long-drawn one. It will take two to three months to vaccinate all the teachers. Many teachers recently have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and are currently in isolation.

Further, one also needs to remember that for an individual, the vaccination process is completed only after he or she takes both doses, with a gap of three to four weeks. Also, even after the vaccination is done, it takes about two weeks for the body to develop immunity against the virus.

Vaccination of teachers and students for board exams would have been a viable strategy if the government had taken it up in January itself.

What alternatives would you suggest to holding physical exams?

Holding online examinations. However, the challenge is that many students from rural areas and underprivileged backgrounds do not have access to gadgets and internet connectivity. But there are other options as well, such as assessing students through assignments and oral examinations. When we have methods of evaluation other than examinations, there is no reason why we should not use them.

Last year, when some papers were cancelled, students were evaluated for those subjects based on pre-board and internal assessment. The same evaluation pattern can be adopted this year. In fact, last year, some IITs also evaluated students through internal assessment. Schools can be given the task of evaluating students on the basis of past performance and internal assessment.

Meanwhile, the government in Tamil Nadu has already taken a decision to promote all students from Class 9 to 11. Why can’t this be done throughout the country? There should be uniformity for students across the nation.

Another alternative is to hold physical board exams later. However, for that to happen, the government will need to give an assurance that the threat of the coronavirus will abate by then and that it will provide the necessary medical infrastructure and facilities to teachers, students and parents. Currently, the authorities are not giving such an assurance.

What concerns have parents and students expressed?

In the 2020-21 academic session, classes were mostly held online. Many students could not study properly because of lack of gadgets and other difficulties in holding classes online. Now that offline exams are slated to be held from the end of this month, you can imagine the state of mind of these students and their parents.

Throughout the 2019-20 session, physical classes were held, after which students were able to appear for their exams. When the lockdown was announced, the exams that were yet to be held were cancelled or postponed. This year, the situation is different. If offline exams are held now, it could well lead to another wave of COVID-19. So many students will be exposed to risk; they can be infected by the virus and pass it on to their families. There is also the question of whether SOPs to prevent infection will be strictly followed everywhere.

In September, students had protested the decision to hold physical exams for NEET and JEE-Main. However, those exams were only held for one day each. On the other hand, the Class 10 and 12 exams are expected to go on for nearly a month.

Also, fewer students appeared for NEET and JEE when you compare the numbers with those slated to appear for board exams. Here, we are dealing with a challenge of an altogether different magnitude.



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