For the past five decades, Sri Sai Bala Nikethan High School in Secunderabad has been educating students hailing from underprivileged backgrounds, mostly those whose parents work as daily wage labourers or municipal workers. The school’s correspondent CS Omkareshwar says they have braved many storms to run the institution, but this time they are struggling to weather the pandemic that has pushed them towards bankruptcy and on the verge of shutting down.
“Our strength has dropped from 200 students to just 60 as many families with meagre or no income are struggling to pay the fees or buy the gadgets required to attend online education. We are finding it very hard to run the school now," he told CNN-News18.
Budget schools charge anywhere between 300 to 1,500 rupees a month as fees, but online education hasn’t been able to supplement daily costs for most of them. The owners of Sri Sai Bala Nikethan say they have been shelling out nearly Rs 2 lakh a month from their own pockets to run the institution, which also includes electricity bills and teachers’ salaries. The income from the school fees is not even a third of the total expenses, they say.
“Our school fees are 1,200-1,500 rupees a month, but now we are begging the parents to pay whatever they can. Our expenses haven’t reduced. We are requesting the state government to at least waive off electricity and water charges," Omkareshwar added
Telangana Recognised School Managements Association, an umbrella body that has more than 10,000 schools under its ambit, claims nearly 1,200 budget schools have already pulled down shutters in the state. They have sent multiple requests to the state government to reopen schools in a phased manner amid strict enforcement of Covid protocols.
“There have been no new admissions and existing students hailing from low-income families have stopped taking online classes as parents feel they will be naturally promoted to the next class by the government. They have even stopped paying tuition fees," Srinivas Reddy, TRSMA president, told CNN-News18.
Reddy’s own school, Bharathi Vidya Bhavan High School in Amberpet, has seen nearly 30% dropouts in the past two academic years
“Not just our revenues but also the quality of education has deteriorated. Class 10 students have forgotten basic maths and English," he added
More admissions in government schools
There has been a steady rise, meanwhile, in new admissions at government schools where education is free. Nearly 30 lakh students study in government schools across the state
“After I lost my job, I was forced to shift my daughter from a private to a government school. But I have no regrets because government schools have improved a lot. Classes are regular," said Shiva Gowda, who now works as a security guard. His 10-year-old daughter pursues her digital lessons through the government-run T-SAT network and DD Yadagiri, which broadcasts pre-recorded lessons for classes 3 to 10.
According to the department of school education, about 55,000 students have shifted from private to government schools during the current academic year. Most of these admissions were for class 6 and above.
Unpaid teaching, non-teaching staff
With Covid denting their revenues, private schools have cut down on their teaching staff, claiming that they are unable to pay salaries. Even expensive private schools have only recalled 50% of their teaching staff, while the rest have been put on hold without salary or incentives. The situation in the case of budget schools is even worse as most teachers have been working without salaries over the past six months.
“My school management hasn’t been able to pay me since they are cash-strapped. We are struggling to run our homes but leaving my job is not an option as no one is hiring at the moment. I am also taking up tuitions to support my family,” said Bhavani, a Telugu teacher.
The Telangana government has been providing a monthly incentive of Rs 2,000 and 25 kilograms of rice to support government and private school teachers, but the reach has been limited, according to Telangana Private Teachers Forum.
“Big private schools are charging full fees and earning at least 80,000 to 1 lakh rupees from each student. Yet they are not paying us. I haven’t received my full salary for the past 18 months now. The situation is the same everywhere," said Subhalakshmi, a high school teacher who also works as a tailor to run her household.
The issue of non-payment of fees has also led to stray incidents of private schools allegedly exploiting students by either giving them fewer marks or not issuing transfer certificates to relieving students. Most private schools have been clamouring for reopening, but the Telangana government is not keen on heeding their requests anytime soon due to opposition from parents amid an imminent third wave of the pandemic.