Hema Priya’s hands may shiver when she receives the exam paper next week. The 14-year-old girl from a Scheduled Tribe community in Tamil Nadu will appear for her class 10 board exams on June 15, along with 9.45 lakh other students in the state.
Hema Priya’s only hope is her books. With less than 10 days left for the exams to commence, she doesn’t know how to draw a graph — which she feels is a piece of cake to pass the mathematics exam.
After postponing the board exams due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all five southern states were keen on conducting them at the earliest. Kerala, in fact, has already conducted the three remaining exams between May 26 and 29. While Telangana has cancelled the TS SSC exams that had been scheduled for June 8, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh will be holding the final examinations starting June 15, June 25 and July 10 respectively.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, putting students through a refresher course at schools seems impossible. However, private schools and some concerned government teachers have started coaching students online. States governments have been telecasting training sessions through local cable networks. But despite all these measures, students from Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities are doubtful about passing the exams.
As Hema Priya begins recounting how she copes with the schooling, her voice trembles. She studies in a government high school in Ponneri taluk of Tiruvallur district. On being promoted to class 10, she saw her friends joining private coaching centres.
Hema Priya’s mother Rangathamma too was determined to enroll her daughter. But it came as a shock for the agricultural labourer that she had to pay ₹1,000 as admission fee, besides monthly fee of ₹500. Hema Priya could not see her mother perplexed and decided to rely on her teachers and a friend who had been receiving private coaching. She would go to school an hour early and get tutored by her friend.
But until a day before she appeared for the half-yearly exams, the school had no maths teacher. A full-day training from the newly-appointed teacher did not help Hema Priya, who had failed the subject. In other subjects, she scored around 60 marks.
As she was preparing for the board exams, the lockdown was imposed across the country. The family had three meals a day once in a blue moon. Hema Priya’s father did not have a single penny to recharge the credit in his ‘button phone’— as she describes a basic cell phone without internet access.
Contents of her books have become random texts as she cannot recall what she had learned three months ago. She neither wants to bother her friends nor has the contact numbers of her teachers. She is clueless about how she will pass the exam, but certainly does not want her half-yearly maths result to multiply.
About 450 km far lives 15-year-old Kiran in a roadside hut thatched with palm fronds in the Yemmiganur town of Kurnool district in Andhra Pradesh. Studying in an English-medium government school, he also belongs to an ST community, whose members earn a living by making baskets.
Like Hema Priya, Kiran too does not have a smartphone, and, in turn, has been deprived of WhatsApp tests conducted by the state government for class 10 students. However, he manages to watch some training sessions on the state-run Mana TV at a friend’s house, but fears that it may not be enough to pass the exams.
Until the lockdown, Kiran had been working as a helper on a private water tanker in the evenings that fetched him ₹100 a day which hardly gave him any time to study. Amid the lockdown, he gets a lot of time to study, but lacks proper guidance.
Fortunately, Kiran copes with the Mana TV sessions in English. But not all students in the Telugu-speaking state manage with these. The sessions are seen as an act to push people for the adaption to English medium schools that are on the cards since the YSR Congress Party, under YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, came to power in the state.
Around 50 km away from Yemmiganur lies Jampapuram, a remote village bordering Karnataka. Having studied in a Telugu-medium government school from class 1, Aishwarya finds it difficult to understand the tele-sessions, especially Science and Social Studies subjects. The 14-year-old girl from an SC community, however, follows these sessions with a hope of passing the exams. Unlike Kiran, she takes the WhatsApp tests on her cousin’s smartphone.
But Aishwarya, who scores around 50 in each subject, doesn’t get on with these online and television sessions as much as the tutoring by her teachers at school. Her classmates Johnson and Palraj too agree with Aishwarya. A dilemma confronts the three students even after receiving their hall tickets.
A government teacher in Kurnool, Devendra Babu says the conduct of WhatsApp tests differs between schools. Some institutions, like the one where Aishwarya studies, have fewer class 10 students than others.
This allows teachers there to manage and organise all students in a WhatsApp group. But teachers at schools with a higher strength have trouble getting all students together. This affects students from deprived communities who even have access to the internet, explains Devendra Babu.
Similar is the case with slums in Koramangala in Karnataka’s Bengaluru. The online classes are not uniform. While teachers of some government-aided schools have been taking online lessons, many government school students have been missing out on these, says Monisha, a maths teacher and program coordinator at Maarga, a community-based organisation that operates in slums in the area.
She says students have forgotten about 60 per cent of what they had learned in the past year. Even as Maarga, which was roped in by the government to train these students in the evenings, continues to take classes, it can only cover two of the seven slums in the area. So, students in other slums get no training for the exams, she says.
With the lockdown being imposed for more than two months, children in these slums have been gripped by an unusual fear. They feel exams will be tough as they have got three months to prepare, says Monisha. This has created anxieties about their coping with the exam. They have even gone to the extent of thinking whether they could enter a college for a pre-university course if they failed in the exams, she says.
Another problem that afflicts students is their transportation to exam centres. Students in all remote villages and hilly areas face the issue. For instance, Aishwarya’s exam centre in Kosigi which is around 8 km away from her village, has only one way to reach for which she has to take an auto-rickshaw up to Kosigi bus stand and walk 2 km to reach the exam hall.
Many students in hilly areas of Tamil Nadu face a similar problem, but exam centres are around 35 km away from their villages, says Dr. V. Vasanthi Devi, an educationist, who has moved the Madras High Court against the state government’s decision to conduct the board exams. She awaits the next hearing on June 11.
However, the state government has arranged transport facilities for all students — including operation of vans to pick students up from remote villages, says Sigy Thomas Vaidyan, the Commissioner of School Education. But will the government be able to transport lakhs of students to exams centres remains a question.
Moreover, the state has decided to bring back students to hostels for Adi Dravidars, a term that denotes Scheduled Caste in Tamil Nadu, and Tribals by June 11. Many students who had been staying at these hostels did not even take their belongings, including textbooks, while returning home after the lockdown was announced, says Vasanthi.
Even as Sigy says hostels will be free without students from classes 6 to 9, making students maintain social distancing will be an arduous task for the wardens, says Vasanthi. She has sought the cancellation of the exams and promotion of all students to class 11. Tamil Nadu had a pass percentage of 95.2 per cent last year and 94.5 per cent in 2018.
However, Sigy says the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) is important in the life of each student. The government feels the future of the children is much more important than the efforts that it has been taking to conduct the exams, she says.
If the state is adamant, then it should conduct the exams one month after schools reopen for all classes, Vasanthi says.
In that one month, students will undergo a refresher course which would allow students like Hema Priya and Kiran, who are deprived of technologies, and those like Aishwarya, who are faced with language barriers, to gain confidence in themselves.