This article is written by Raslin Saluja from KIIT School of Law, Bhubaneswar. The author has briefly analyzed the decisions of the various authorities for conducting offline exams in the backdrop of the pandemic sweeping through the country at a staggering pace.
There has been a fluctuating rate at which COVID-19 cases have been progressing. At times the country witnessed an exponential rise imposing stricter lockdowns, curfew timings while on the other hand, cases plummeted loosening the restrictions and returning to the usual course of life. However, it was during the second wave when the country was raging with the virus and increasing number of cases when it was announced that the board exams will be held offline. This decision of the government while the country was facing an unprecedented situation of the high death toll and fatality rate, was highly criticized. There were several online petitions and requests by parents, political leaders, celebrities, etc., taking rounds, however to no avail. To that end, a PIL was filed by the students seeking the cancellation of exams.
Considering the situation, conducting offline exams would be an exercise in futility with wasting time and resources and compromising the safety of individuals. Conducting offline exams for the students can have various consequences for various reasons. An ongoing pandemic is not a usual everyday situation that people might face. With people losing their loved ones, children becoming orphans, families losing their bread earners all around the country, the mental well-being of the people has gone for a toss. With panic all around, these circumstances have triggered anxiety disorders and depression in people.
Reasons why offline exams should not be conducted amid a pandemic
- Gathering a huge number of students in exam centres can make the area a catalyst for spreading the virus. It can become a hotspot and can trigger a new wave.
- As a result, it exposes the students and the faculty, other administrative staff at a huge risk of being infected.
- The standards of online teaching and assignments are not at par with the standards of offline exams.
- Many schools/universities do not possess the proper infrastructure to hold offline exams in such critical situations.
- It will cause greater expenditure in developing the requisite infrastructure, booking a large number of exam centres, employing additional staff for invigilation, sanitization, refreshments, etc
- Conducting offline exams will take time due to the requirement of maintaining proper security and distancing protocols and avoiding overcrowding the place, thus reducing the duration of the next academic year.
- It is also of common knowledge that no institution can guarantee 100% compliance with the protocols.
- It will also affect admission to foreign universities as students will be denied for the inability to submit final results on time.
- For certain students, who have already appeared for the exams through internal assessments and assignments would face unfair treatment and discrimination if others are made to sit for offline exams.
- Prolonged academic year, uncertain future have created mental trauma in students.
- Boards of other countries had already cancelled their exams, leaving Indian students wanting to apply to foreign universities at a disadvantage.
- Even it will be a task for the teachers to evaluate those answer sheets who will have to be physically present in the centre for spot markings.
- The conventional exam system puts a lot of strain on students especially when it comes to class tenth and twelfth board exams.
- Doctors and educationists have strongly advised against conducting offline examinations.
- There is no reason to believe that students are resistant to the virus unless every student is vaccinated.
- It is difficult for children to exercise the due caution that is necessary to avert the spread of this highly transmissible disease
- The mental well-being of students is more important than exams.
- Proper discussion with students and parents who are the main stakeholders should be taken before making any such decisions.
- All these reasons combined, it violates Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.
Violation of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution
Conducting offline exams violates the right of the students under Article 14 of the Constitution of India, which guarantees the equality of law and equal protection of the law for all persons in the territory of India. The education of a lot of students was affected as earlier in order to ensure safety, all the educational institutes were closed which made an incomparable impact on education. This led to a shift from the traditional teaching-learning pattern. A UNESCO report revealed, in India only over 32 crores of students are hampered due to nationwide lockdown and other restrictions, and at the global level, this number has already crossed 157 crores amongst 191 countries. To check the learning gap and overcome the situation, people around the world resorted to the virtual modes of learning using online platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, etc. This educational crisis thus not only brought us possible alternatives but also informed our inabilities, and infrastructural insufficiency.
However digital learning has not been very effective as only 24 percent of households have access to the internet, according to a 2019 UNICEF survey with numbers even far lower with only 4% of households having access to the internet in rural India. For some school authorities, though they tried to conduct online classes, less than 5 percent of students had reliable internet access. Then again for students who were dependent on the school/college library for reading material, it was a tough shift.
Since not all students have equal access and opportunity to be able to even attend classes, preparing to appear for offline exams seems rather unfair. For those students who were staying in boarding school who had to move back to their hometown away from their schools and are not having the financial means to reach the center, as well as students hailing from flood-affected states like Bihar, Assam and the North East might have to face severe difficulties in appearing for the exam, which will affect their chances of succeeding and in turn affect their career and future.
Violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution
Article 21 provides for the right to life and personal liberty of all persons. This Article may also be invoked as conducting offline exams amidst this medical catastrophe will be irrational, unjust, and unfair. It will lead to a gathering of a large number of students at the exam centres and may lead to a high risk of disease and even death due to the infection. It will expose them to life-threatening health hazards. This violates the fundamental right to life and health of the students.
On the other hand, parents are also in a state of panic besides other financial problems, the paranoia of their child getting infected while reaching the exam centres. For students who were studying in boarding schools and belong to remote areas, they might have to travel and return to another city for the same in times where the transport facilities are also limited. Many are not even convinced to let their children move out alone to study in distant places. The parents were reluctant to send their children and even called the principal and teachers to inquire. Many were also worried considering grandparents being at home and vulnerable to viruses in case children return getting infected. Other concerns include if invigilators/students get detected with the virus during the exam, remaining papers will have to be canceled and students will have to be quarantined.
To conduct offline exams would be to ignore the stress and mental health of the students. Further, the students affected with covid-19 would not be able to appear. In the backdrop of a potential third wave approaching, as long as the students are not fully vaccinated, there is a huge threat to their lives.
Students along with their families have been facing various difficulties. While for students, according to primary research, 90 per cent of them were not mentally prepared and cited reasons such as exam dilemmas and uncertainty. A similar study named Mental Health Implications of the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that during the early onset of the pandemic, 60 percent of Indian college students experienced high stress from the exam and being the worst hit mentally reporting the highest net deterioration in their emotions. Their anxiety and trauma are sure to affect their performance, which the authorities need to realize and keep in consideration. The situation is so critical that media reports informed several suicides.
Student unrest and virtual protest
Though the idea to conduct offline exams is intended to move forward in their academic year, their collective decisions should be considered the most in consideration of them being the main stakeholders. Earlier when the government had decided to conduct the 10th and 12th examinations offline and other universities were forcing the students to appear for offline college exams, around 5000 students had gone in virtual protests and strikes against the decision. The social media platforms like Twitter were flooded with hashtags #SATYAGRAH_against_exams, #BOYCOTT_exams. As a result, around 300 students even wrote to the sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for the cancellation of their board exams.
Learning from the past
There have been various instances, where states like Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, etc had opened their institutions, universities for conducting many important entrance exams during the peak covid times at the end of July and August 2020. The news reported that students have shown COVID-19 positive symptoms just after they wrote their exam papers. In Kerala, 5 students have already shown positive symptoms after they come back home from exam centers.
It was observed that the possibility of students getting infected the most through the violation of protocols in Kerala especially in aspects related to the transportation of students from their homes to the exam centers and crowding of students to discuss their question papers after the exams are over.
Even in Ranchi, as plans for conducting offline practical exams for 22 days for students of 10th and 12th were being made, positive cases were reported in at least five schools. In government schools, around 14 students were found infected whereas 10 cases were detected, including teachers, in 3 private schools.
Earlier in March 2020, when Odisha’s St. Xavier’s College was reopened, about 23 students staying in the hostel premises were found infected due to which the college was sealed and students were asked to return home.
Even in the rallies and campaigns that took place in the elections earlier the previous year, no strict adherence was maintained to the COVID protocols leading to an increase in infections and death dramatically. Thus, all these instances suggest that attempts of reopening schools/colleges for conducting offline exams ultimately resulted in students getting infected.
Petitions before the Court
In addition to these, there were also petitions filed by the Youth Bar Association of India on behalf of a group of 521 students of XII standard of CBSE, ICSE for canceling the offline board exams. The plea stated similar reasons as having been stated earlier for the cancellation of the offline exams. Another petition was heard by the Supreme Court, seeking a directive with respect to the physical examination of the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) exams. This was followed by another plea seeking cancellation of state board exams filed by the “Chief of the India Wide Parents Association” on behalf of 47 students from 23 different states and two Union Territories and three different countries. This ultimately led to the cancellation of the exams and students were to be graded through assessment methods as per the direction of the Court.
Another plea was filed in the Kerala High Court against the conduction of the Kerala Nursing Examination 2021 in offline mode by the Kerala University of Health Sciences. Students were seeking the cancellation of the offline exam in view of the pandemic and, according to the plea, several students who traveled back to the hostel to appear for the exam were later tested positive for COVID-19, thus, posing a great risk to their health and risking the spread of the infection. Thus, we see there has been constant opposition from the students, parents, ministers, and officials towards conducting exams in offline mode. Conducting exams going against the wishes of the main stakeholders involved and not taking their concerns into consideration would be a gross violation of their rights.
There are three options available, either to cancel the exams or to suspend them, or take them online in a modified format. Taking them in modified seems most reliable as it will keep the things going. For any exam, in order to measure a student’s progress and eligibility for educational opportunities has to be fair and of standard. It would depend on the content and pattern of the exam, availability of resources, and analysis of the results. If exams are canceled/suspended, then how can fairness/transparency be preserved for granting scholarships and seats. If they continue with the online format, then it demands fair access to all the students.
However, many countries went ahead and decided to call off their offline examination considering the situation. For instance, in Norway, written exams for all three years of high school and 10th-grade students in junior high were canceled. In the U.S, important exams for taking admissions like the SAT were canceled. That said, many US universities were ready to adjust their admissions criteria. Similarly, the International Baccalaureate examinations were not held, instead, a Diploma or a Course Certificate “based on the student’s coursework and the established assessment expertise, rigor and quality control already built into the programs” was introduced.
Other countries like Hong Kong had postponed their Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exam followed by the GaoKao University of China, which nearly 10 million students take per year in their entrance examinations, and Colombia, while continuously exploring options for rescheduling.
Countries like the United Kingdom conducted their exams online for the first time for medical school students. The duration of the exam was three hours for 150 questions in an open book format though it required sufficient knowledge to do well in it. U.S used the technique of Advanced Placement (AP) exams, to measure the students’ mastery of content and skills in a specific subject and are used to obtain college credit with resources provided to the students online. The CXC high school exams in the Caribbean to determine the final grades implemented the modified online formats which had multiple-choice questions plus school-based assignments.
Are offline exams justifiable?
As for the reasons stated above, conducting an offline examination does not seem justifiable given the current situation. For a long time, the country has neglected the need for having healthy mental well-being. There have been cases of suicides, anxiety disorders, and depressive episodes of students in the past which have time and again generated a nationwide debate about mental health issues even under normal circumstances. Given the pandemic, mental well-being is at an all-time low. The students should not be pressurized to appear for the same if they are not able to cope up and are not in a position to prepare. It would be unfair for the students to appear for the examination without proper preparation and in a troubled state of condition as their results would have a long-term impact hampering their academic curve. Besides these reasons, the threat of spreading the virus is very real. Due to these reasons, the University Grant Commission in the larger interest of students issued a notification stating cancellation of the same.
Finally, after various efforts made by the students and their parents, the Prime Minister along with the decision of the Ministry of Education on June 1 announced the cancellation of the exams and avoided what could have been a deadly mistake. Thus the need of the moment is to ensure the safety, health, and lives of students as no exam can be more important than the lives of the people of the country. Prevention is better than cure and there is no need for anyone to prove it otherwise. The utmost reasons behind the disagreement for conducting the offline exams are the deep fear of COVID-19 and the health risks that students might face during the whole process. At these times, we all need to cooperate and find ways which are beneficial to all, and with the possibility of offline exams turning into a super spreader event, it should not take place and nor should the students be forced to appear for the same.
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