For the past three months, Sri Venkateswara Group of Schools that comprise CBSE and matriculation schools, each with a student strength of 5000 in Chennai, has been paying their staff of 300-including teaching and non-teaching members, despite being unable to collect fees, following the government’s order.
Uma Kannan, the founder of the group, says that they have survived on an availed bank loan.
“I do not know what awaits us, if this is going to continue. We have also begun online lessons for students of classes three to 12, amid these events. We begin collecting fee every year in the months of May, June, and July, an initial academic fees of ₹15,000 to ₹20,000, and the arrears of the previous year’s are also collected,” she says.
”A monthly fee of ₹700- ₹1000 is collected from each student for nine months. At least 80 per cent of this goes towards the salaries for the staff, which is ₹70 lakh every month. We have paid them for the last three months, but how long can we go on without collecting fee and what about our livelihood as my whole family is part of the management,” she added.
The students belong to lower-middle income and middle-income groups, says Uma, adding that the teachers are mostly women, while their spouses have been dealing with pay cuts. Uma also says that the payment to vendors for books and uniform is pending.
“We have not been able to distribute that either,” she says.
Schools seek RTE funds to tide over lull
The Tamil Nadu government has issued an order to schools against collection of fees and arrears during the phase, even as a PIL is in court. The Madras High Court has asked the government to respond on how schools are expected to pay their staff if they can’t even collect a minimum fees.
The struggle of private schools like Sri Venkateswara has led to the Tamil Nadu nursery, primary, matriculation, and CBSE schools association reaching out to the Centre, seeking the disbursement of Right to Education funds for the years 2018-19 and 2019-20.
KR Nandakumar, state secretary of the association, added, “Today (June 30), is the last day for renewal of the fitness certificate for the buses operated by these schools. We also have electricity bills insurance premium and provident fund, apart from road taxes, water, and property taxes that have to be paid, despite not collecting fees. 40 per cent of the RTE funds is pending for nursery and primary schools for 2018-19, while 100 per cent is pending for the last academic year.”
Schools like Ramana Vidyalaya have decided to take parents along in this issue, as they look into specific cases of financially-backward families to help them.
Lalitha Chandrasekaran, director of the school said, “Schools are dependent on the fees to pay their staff and we cannot lay them off for the time being and have them back once things become normal. For us, teachers and parents are both assets. It is an ecosystem where we have to support each other. None of the parents have told us they won’t pay the fees, instead we have told them to approach us in case they have an issue with arranging fees due to personal reasons like losing jobs.”
”In fact, parents who are in a better financial position have also been requested to help out one another who might need their assistance in this period. I am also happy that advertisements have raised this issue of denying school fees when many are happy paying for everything else,” she added.
Why collect fee for amenities we won’t use now?
Several private schools collected fee for the first term or semester much before the pandemic and lockdown, but that has led to a different set of problems.
Parents of some children studying in a private school in Chennai have begun a petition seeking the reimbursement of transport and lunch fees paid to the school in March this year, as part of their semester fees. The reason being that the school had shut down immediately after the payment, following the steps taken by government to curb the spread of COVID-19. Now, after three months, even as the school has begun online classes, the parents are up in arms.
A parent says, “We will soon receive the alert to pay the next semester fees. However, we want to know why they cannot adjust the fees from the first semester and only ask for the remaining amount. They sought cash payment in March.”
However, parents like Pradeepa MP, feel that such costs saved by schools should be passed on for a better cause. Two of her children study at a CBSE school off OMR.
“We can collectively survive during this phase. The fees can be used to compensate for the fees of another child, who is possibly unable to pay because of parents facing pay cuts or losing job in this period. Or it could also be donated by taking the parent’s consensus for this,” she added.
Another parent on the condition of anonymity says that fees collection is not as such an issue, as she is glad that her children do not have to risk getting infected, going to school. “I think this whole idea of online classes and cycle tests being conducted online is to collect fees from parents. We will very soon be asked to pay the next term fees,” she pointed out.
Some parents like Shankara Narayanan, whose daughter is enrolled at Badalchand Sugankavur Chordia Vivekananda Vidyalaya, say that it is unreasonable to expect schools not to seek payment of fees.
“In fact, my daughter’s school had sent a request, telling us how the fee can help them continue their service and begin classes, as they have to buy a server to facilitate online lessons. I thought it was fair as they can pay their staff only with the fees we pay. It is hard for anyone to survive in this time without salaries, so I decided to consider their request,” he added.