For over a month or more, newspapers and email newsletters of school teachers’ unions have been writing about the situation of teachers who were engaged in state elections, managing COVID-19 quarantine centres, conducting panchayat elections and effectively working as frontline workers of the administration – without being given that status. Uttar Pradesh alone has lost 1,621 teachers as of May 17, 2021. Most recently the Telangana Teachers Federation said that 230 teachers have lost their lives during the second wave. In Maharashtra, at least 220 teachers lost their lives and in Madhya Pradesh, there are reports of over 51 deaths. There are some patchy reports of teachers falling ill and being hospitalised in West Bengal and we still do not have adequate information from states like Assam.
Among the factors that led to so many teachers contracting COVID-19 are
- attending workshops for state or panchayat elections, where close to 1,000 teachers were trained at one site without COVID-19 protocols being followed;
- social distancing or sanitisation practices were not adhered to during election
- managing COVID-19 relief related duties, like overseeing quarantine camps
- attending school and conducting online classes from school, visiting families of children as part of outreach programmes in several southern states; and
- performing miscellaneous duties teachers
For over four months now, teachers’ unions have been demanding that they should be treated as frontline workers and vaccinated on a priority basis. With the exception of very few states, this demand has not been favourably received by the government. Only Kerala has declared them frontline workers. There is some talk, yet unverified, about Tamil Nadu doing the same. Coupled with vaccine shortages and the need for greater surveillance by state governments – government school teachers (both regular and contract) have been at the forefront of government efforts to manage the pandemic. Even contract teachers (shiksha mitras in UP for example) were asked to work, even though their salaries were not paid for long stretches.
What do these developments tell us about the real status of government school teachers across India? Yes, their primary identity is that of a government servant or a government employee – who is expected to respond to call of duty. Teachers do not take issue with their status as government workers, but with their shifting status. As government workers (especially contract teachers), they are expected to do whatever they are called upon to do, but do not get the same status as other frontline workers.
The second worrying dimension is that their primary role as schoolteachers is often set aside. As a result, many of them have been talking about their inability to conduct online classes or provide on-site learning materials to children in the villages. Equally, when they are called for training workshops (for example for state and panchayat elections), basic COVID-19 protocols like social distancing, compulsory masking and avoiding closed spaces is often bypassed. Teachers say while they are expected to communicate these protocols to others, they are not followed when they are involved in workshops or other activities.
The situation in Telangana is especially noteworthy because unions have been demanding that if a teacher is infected or if they lose their life, the government should not only bear the cost of hospitalisation but also provide financial relief of Rs 1 crore to the family. In Uttar Pradesh, female teachers in advanced stages of pregnancy were not exempted from election duties – even though they went to court seeking exemption. Similar instances are being cited in other states too. The UP teachers’ unions have also demanded compensation and jobs for the families of deceased teachers.
The biggest issue facing school teachers is that they are divided into different unions. As a result, they have little bargaining power. The competing unions often do not collaborate with each other, even when common issues like COVID-19 related illness and death is brought to their notice. The unions that are aligned to the party in power in a state adopt a hands-off attitude. This approach has gradually eroded the status of the teachers’ unions and they are not in a position to collectively bargain for better treatment or essential support.
Many teachers, especially women, are wary of joining any union – or even if they do, they keep a low profile. The leadership of teachers’ unions is male-dominated and female teachers do not have the space to voice their concerns or grievances. Several teachers have taken to social media – fearing what the Census 2021 exercise would bring, as there is no end in sight to the pandemic. Scientists are warning of a third wave and the government is also cautioning people about vaccine shortages.
There is one more thing. Teachers’ unions have not discussed what needs to be done before schools are reopened – after the pandemic abates or after a majority of the adult population is vaccinated. On the one hand, there are news reports and narratives in social media about the trauma experienced by children and teachers, closure of low cost and small private schools and the impending surge in enrolment in government schools. Associations of small private schools have already said that they may find it very difficult to reopen after experiencing huge financial losses. Families that have experienced loss of jobs or have lost their source of livelihood can no longer afford school fees. Migration from urban to rural areas may also add another dimension to this tragic scenario.
This is perhaps the time for teachers’ unions and teachers’ associations to come together and look at how the education landscape has changed since the pandemic. All stakeholders must recognise the need to redesign and reshape the way government schools work and where teachers are positioned in the government system. The government – Central and state – must be more receptive to new ideas. For example, in Rajasthan there is a lot of discussion on how the government can manage the surge in enrolment, strengthening primary health care, equipping district and sub-district hospitals with more facilities to manage pandemics and so on. The discussions are currently quite muted and happening both within the government as well as among civil society organisations.
We – as a country – have a chance to reimagine our school education structure, support teachers to become empowered and autonomous and accountable to children and their parents. Breaking the hierarchical structure will not only help teachers reclaim their voice and their status but also ensure every child can realise her right to education, right to learn and right to be treated with kindness and dignity.
Is this asking too much?