India: educators urge governments to take urgent action to guarantee the health and safety of the education community

published 13 August 2021 updated 21 September 2021

The All India Primary Teachers Federation (AIPTF) has repeatedly urged public authorities, at state and federal levels, to listen to the educators’ voice to best ensure teachers, education support personnel and students’ health and safety during the raging COVID-19 pandemic severely affecting them.

“The COVID-19 outbreak has created an unprecedented situation and is forcing governments and educators to find rapid solutions to ensure the continuity of quality education at all levels. In India, over 320 million learners have been affected by the pandemic,” stressed AIPTF General Secretary, Kamala Kanta Tripathy.

Indian educators’ challenges

Some of the major challenges faced by members and collected by AIPTF through online consultations and webinars are:

  • The closure of schools for more than 18 months with no hope of reopening elementary schools in the short term is demotivating for both children and teachers.
  • Teachers were not provided sufficient training to switch to an online teaching mode.
  • More than 80% of students do not have any resources or access for distance learning.
  • Health of children - Mental, physical and nutritional.
  • Extended working hours; delay in payment of salaries/pension; unjustified cut of salary or freezing of annual salary increase, etc.
  • Harassment and safety of women teachers, threats, abusive language, etc.

Unsuccessful plea to state and federal governments

AIPTF lobbied the education minister and chief ministers of all Indian states to provide teachers with basic resources, so that they are protected while on duty. The union made an appeal to its state affiliates to send letters of solidarity to the India’s Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the governments did not pay any attention.

“AIPTF and its affiliates continued to press governments to treat teachers as ‘Corona Warriors’, like medical and health care professionals, but we were not able to have any success due to an inflexible governmental approach,” Tripathi said.

Online education: not the solution

AIPTF also strongly criticised the inappropriate timing of the release of the National Education Policy 2020, launched while everyone was struggling to survive, and made it known through the media. According to the AIPTF leader, the union was the first to oppose online teaching, especially for marginalised children, and understood the hidden agenda of the government to encourage private parties to play a role in the remote education process.

Later, many studies were conducted by civil society organisations and other unions, such as the Delhi University Teachers’ Union and the Student Union of the University of Delhi, on the consequences of online education, Tripathi noted. He said,“Our counterpart in Assam state was invited by the government to provide solutions for the education of children. Another innovative experience by Jharkhand state was cited by the Prime Minister in a talk show for innovative teaching strategies during a pandemic”.

Reopening schools

As far as reopening schools is concerned, AIPTF is lobbying all governments, both at federal and state levels, to engage in social dialogue, so that a normal teaching and learning process can begin soon to avoid further deterioration in learning outcomes. The education federation firmly insisted that, before reopening schools, all teachers must be vaccinated and educational buildings must be properly disinfected, because they were used as quarantine centres by the government.

Indian educators’ demands

AIPTF and its 25 state affiliates have continuously raised the concerns of teachers since April 2020, when a nationwide lockdown was imposed to stop the spread of the virus. They continue to demand that urgent action be undertaken by the respective state governments on the following key areas:

  • Protection and training for teachers performing COVID-related duties.
  • The delay in payment of salaries and pension.
  • Safety and insurance.

Tripathy was adamant that “the government’s callous approach to handle the situation has fueled the surge of the pandemic. People from all walks of life have succumbed to the virus. The public health infrastructure collapsed, and teachers considered as ‘free’ by the federal and state governments because schools were closed were engaged in all kinds of tasks, even though they were not trained to perform such work.”

Since April 2020, AIPTF has been putting pressure on governments – at federal and state levels – to guarantee the provision of preventive measures and equipment like personal protective equipment kits, masks, etc., before asking teachers to undertake pandemic-related duties. The duties ranged from thermal screening to managing check points on the roads located in containment zones.

Electoral process and duties, a danger for teachers

In Uttar Pradesh, AIPTF urged in May 2021 the government to stop the election process until the public health crisis was under better control. The call came as AIPTF mourned the deaths of many teachers after they were infected with COVID-19 during polling place duties at elections in Uttar Pradesh.

More than 1,600 teachers lost their lives to COVID-19 while on election duty in the state, according to members of the AIPTF Uttar Pradesh branch.

Acknowledging that the election ballot work by teachers and other state employees represents “very important duties for development and growth of our country”, AIPTF insisted that it is not a good time for these types of duties.

“Our state affiliates were continuously lobbying for the families of colleagues who lost their life due to COVID-19 while on duty to get compensation, to give governmental jobs to family members as per their qualifications, etc. In some case, we and our counterparts were successful, although, in the state of Bihar, they are still negotiating with government,” Tripathy added.

Concerning the Tamil Nadu state, as explained by AIPTF Joint General Secretary and Tamil Nadu Elementary School Teachers Federation (TESTF) General secretary, Shri N. Rangarajan, and research scientist, Dr. J Eswaran, education unionists “have resolved to march forward steadily but strongly holding our under-privileged children with us into a post-pandemic brighter future. However, the governments around the world should recognise the global challenges involved in primary education in deprived communities and prepare practical solutions and policy changes involving teacher unions, relevant experts and stakeholders.”

They added that “the primary school teachers were posed with a particular challenge that is shared by many low-middle income countries, where the contact with the students and their parents had to be established in a very unusual setting”.

Call for joint support and cooperation from various stakeholders in education

Reflecting on experiences drawn from the pandemic, Tripathy stressed that, “from the teachers’ perspective, it was the most challenging time of their careers, as they witnessed many firsts like lockdowns, prolonged school closures worldwide, sudden shifts in the working approach, the most painful one being the inability to reach to the children as teachers. This transition has not been easy and reaching every student in class has proven to be quite a challenge. Approximately one-third of a classroom completes their assignments and reaches out with questions when they need help. As for the remaining children, we know that various barriers are preventing them from getting adequate education.”

He expects that the next few years will see the Indian education system stumble and struggle to cope with the effects of the pandemic. However, he said that “continuing doing things the way we have been doing them all these years is simply not an option. Increased drop-out rates, traumatic stress, anxiety, and decreased skill levels cannot all be fixed with good old-fashioned discipline. The problems the pandemic poses within the classroom must be answered through real understanding and joint support and cooperation from various stakeholders.”

Reaffirming that “we, at AIPTF, along with our affiliates, are committed to safeguard the health, safety and well-being of students and teachers,” he stressed that specific measures should be introduced to protect all educators who continue to teach and take care of children.

“We will continue to exert pressure on governments to work with teachers and their unions to find ways in which the education process can continue during temporary school closures. Such measures can only be designed with the expertise and experiences of teachers,” Tripathy said.

TRIPS waiver

On the frontline of the fight against COVID-19, while AIPTF is not campaigning for the TRIPS (Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights) waiver at the World Trade Organization, it welcomes the Indian federal government’s support for the TRIPS waiver proposal, so that vaccines can be manufactured in India to meet the demand.

Climate change

For AIPTF, it is also of utmost importance to act on climate change, as they expect that climate change will bring more and more pandemics in future, loss of human lives due in particular to flash floods and extreme weather conditions. That is, unless teachers and their organisations do not come forward to raise awareness within our future generations about the negative effects of climate change in different spheres of life.

According to Tripathy, “it is our responsibility to leave our planet safe for generations to come. We all know that education is an essential factor in the urgent global fight against climate change. Raising awareness regarding the phenomenon helps young people understand and tackle the consequences of global warming, encourages them to change their behaviour and helps them adapt to what is already a global emergency. There is growing momentum around the world to harness the power of education to combat and adapt to climate change.”

This is in accordance with the Education International’s Teach for the Planet campaign launched last April.

Global education union movement in solidarity

In May, Education International’s Executive Board adopted a statement on India acknowledging the need to “immediately take action to reign down the surge in COVID-19 infection and death and alleviate grief, sorrow and pain suffered by hundreds of thousands of people in the sub-region”.

It sadly noted that:

  • COVID-19 infections in India have surged since April 2021 and as of 11th May 2021, the Indian sub-continent accounts for almost 50% of the world’s new COVID cases.
  • As per government data, more than 290,000 people including health professionals and education staff have succumbed to the virus so far while the actual figures as per various reports are much higher.

The Education International Executive Board also urged the Federal and state governments in India to:

  • Strengthen the public health sector and provide necessary resources to effectively rein in the surge of the pandemic.
  • Provide adequate compensation to the families of teachers and education staff who have lost their lives due to COVID 19 while on duty.
  • Provide relief to overcome the pandemic, especially to those who are most vulnerable and are marginalised.
  • Accelerate vaccination rollout to immediately reach all population groups and prioritise teachers for vaccination to ensure a safe return to in-person teaching and learning.
  • Establish social dialogue with education unions, guarantee the protection and rights of all education workers and develop consultations with the unions to ensure that actions taken after the pandemic are inclusive and comprehensive.

It went on to urge member organisations to stand in solidarity with the educators and education unions in India in these challenging times.