The Madras High Court on Wednesday held that schools in Tamil Nadu can allow students to attend classes, by following physical distancing norms, if special attention is required and online teaching is not an option. Alternatively, the Court said the teachers could also go to the residence of the students.
The Court was dealing with writ petitions having been filed expressing concerns on the usage of online classes hastened by the pandemic. The Court noted that there are many questions that pop-up for consideration: the problems in the usage of technology qua online classes, the roles to be played by all the stakeholders, namely, the instrumentalities of the State, Schools and the Parents. Another important factor is the social divide which unfortunately gets widened through imparting of the present education between the rich and the poor through varied curriculum, methodology and facilities.
On behalf of the petitioners, the following concerns were raised:
(i) there is no mechanism to prevent the obscene and pornographic videos that pop-up during the online classes. The young inquisitive mind would certainly be tempted especially when there is no possibility of the elders being around;
(ii) of all the modes, the recorded versions through the local television channels should be a preferred one, as the issues including the access and the availability would not arise;
(iii) online classes are being conducted without adhering to the time limit, and therefore, the institutions will have to be strictly asked to follow the guidelines;
(iv) online classes create more differences between the rich and the poor. There are serious problems towards connectivity and the availability, no steps have been taken to find out these problems;
(v) there has been a time limit for disposing of complaints by the police. A case has to be registered at the earliest and enquiry will have to be completed in a time bound manner. The guidelines issued should be directed to be complied with in letter and spirit. Incidentally, there must be a mechanism to supervise the implementation;
(vi) the time limit fixed will have to be varied as the classification made for different groups of students is not correct;
(vii) since the entire methodology adopted is temporary, there shall not be any insistence towards evaluation and the understanding of the students being different from each other has to be kept in mind.
(viii) there is no element of privacy involved and, therefore, end-to-end encryption will have to be ensured.
Justices M. M. Sundresh and R. Hemalatha observed that the purpose and object of education has been misunderstood for quite some time along with the role to be played by the teachers and that education is not mere imparting of knowledge. "A mere knowledge in literacy, as we understand in common parlance, can never be termed as education. It is one's own growth of wisdom, compassion, character followed by conversion into action that would constitute education", said the bench, adding that a great nation is built on a character of its own citizens and it transforms into the character of the nation leading to its progress achieved through a value system.
The bench expressed the view that with the onslaught of information pouring through the technology, it is imperative to make sure that the children are groomed in the right way, that technology as such cannot be faulted but only its wrong usage. "We are concerned in these batch of cases on the right use of technology in imparting education which by the definition mentioned earlier would only be construed as 'growth of wisdom'", said the bench.
"Comprehensive and extensive guidelines are issued by the Central Government and the State Government. In fact, the guidelines for Digital Education issued by the Department of School Education & Literacy, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India called as "PRAGYATA" is adopted substantially by the State Government", reflected the bench.
However, the bench noted that the question that arises for consideration is on the implementation of the guidelines which would include compliance by the schools and the parents. The bench was aware that the incidental question is also on the inability of the students having access either due to lack of internet or the availability of device, appreciating empirical data that most of the parents may not have either smart-phones or any other electronic devices to facilitate their wards in getting the benefits of online education.
"PRAGYATA Guidelines for Digital Education – These guidelines have been introduced by the Union of India with the knowledge that the Online Education can never be substituted for classroom learning, while acknowledging the advantages in doing so. It recognized three modes of education for online/digital education. They are, (i) online mode, (ii) partial online mode and (iii) offline mode. It fixes specific roles to be played by the School, Teachers, authorities and the Parents. In implementing the digital education it recommended screening time by dividing the students into four categories based upon the classes in which they are studying. It further takes care of the safety measures to be taken while giving certain guidelines for physical and mental wellness during Education", observed the bench,
The bench further noted that the state government's guidelines are also in tune with the guidelines of the Government of India, and that the focus has been with regard to the well being of the students. The health of the students was also taken note of, inclusive of possible strain to the eyes. An order was also passed by a predecessor Bench calling for a report from the Eye specialists and the concern expressed in the affidavit filed by the Government Eye Specialists has been taken note of and addressed in the guidelines of the State Government.
Noting that this new form of Education is created by the technology which has been imposed upon us by the pandemic, the bench said it should be used as an opportunity to deal with the situation till the normalcy is restored, adding that this is not a substitute to the education in the physical form, but is only supplementary.
"Digitalization has created distinct literate called digital literates. Usage of this technology is an opportunity to learn which would not arise otherwise. This is from the perspective of the Teachers and the Students. Therefore, while doing so, the Institutions along with the Teachers and Parents will have to play their respective roles with all seriousness", the bench continued, taking note that there are certain Schools which are overburdening in conducting the examinations, making the attendance mandatory and taking the classes beyond the time limit mentioned in the guidelines.
"This, we do not approve. Though the guidelines are not stated to be mandatory, we are of the view that they are binding on the Institutions. Taking care of the interest of the children is the primary duty of the Parents, Teachers, Institutions, Government and the Court...Therefore, we are of the firm view that the guidelines are to get the trappings of the mandatory directions", said the bench.
Aware that it is dealing with the classes of varied categories such as Government Schools which are few in existence, aided and un-aided schools, their curriculum is also different, the bench observed that such a right of institutions ro administer and manage themselves is subject to the larger right of the students.
In order to deal with the pop-ups, it was suggested that one can have a blocker. "This is an issue which can be considered by the State Government by issuing a circular to all the Institutions. We are not experts in the field, thus, we call upon the State Government, namely, the Secretary to the Government, Department of Education, Fort St.George, Chennai to deal with the said issue", noted the bench.
The bench also said that schools can explore the possibility of going for the recorded classes as it would ease out the pressure from the point of view of the students. Similarly, recorded versions can be sent through Whatsapp apart from being uploaded in the school portals.
As regards the poor students, the bench said that in the Government schools which are maximum in number, classes can be conducted in the community halls and for those who cannot afford, steps may be taken either to provide the device, or make them to attend the classes, if they are few in numbers, while maintaining the social distancing.
Accordingly, keeping in mind the interest of the children, the bench issued the following directions:
(i) the guidelines issued by the Government of India and the State Government are to be treated and construed as mandatory and, thus, to be adopted and followed by all the stakeholders, particularly the Schools.
(ii) the time limit for the online classes should be strictly adhered to and any violation would require action at the hands of the concerned authorities.
(iii) the State of Tamil Nadu and other bodies, with whom the Schools are affiliated, shall issue circulars to the Schools which are to be circulated in turn to the Parents towards the measures that are required to be taken to block obscene contents.
(iv) the programmes conducted will have to be sent by Whatsapp to the Parents and uploaded in the school portals.
(v) At every District level, the Government of Tamil Nadu and the other competent authorities are expected to set up a Committee to monitor and supervise the due compliance of the guidelines by the institutions. These Committees will have to meet once in a month for the aforesaid purpose.
(vi) The schools concerned will have to undertake the exercise of identifying the problems being faced by the Parents and Teachers in online connectivity and availability of the device. If they are in existence, the feasibility of having classes, particularly for the Government students through the recorded versions telecasted in community halls will have to be considered.
(vii) the schools can also allow group of students identified by them requiring special attendance in view of the difficulties faced in online and digital education to attend physical classes while following social distance. Therefore, in a single class, a small group of students may be permitted to attend the schools by taking all the safety measures.
(viii)Schools can also explore the possibility of Teachers going to the students and giving education if there exists facility to do so.
(ix) the guidelines issued with respect to the attendance, test and examination will have to be strictly complied with.
(x) the guidelines with respect to pre-primary students will have to be complied with strictly.
(xi) the Schools will have to explore the possibility of having end-to-end encryption.
(xii) the guidelines of the State Government will have to be translated in Tamil, if not done already, and the copies of the same will have to be sent to all the schools. The schools in turn are expected to circulate the same to the parents.
(xiii) There shall be interaction between the Schools and the Parents on the functioning of the online/digital education, as many of them may not be digital literates.
(xiv) Any complaints given to the support and help line numbers will have to be looked into by the cyber crime cell and other authorities at the earliest. The complaints to the police will have to be registered immediately if offence is made out and investigation will have to be completed at the earliest. Similarly, the complaints made to the other authorities will have to be looked into and the process of the investigation will have to be completed within a period of three months
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