Thirteen-year-old Rohit Kumar sat up all night on July 19 preparing for his unit test in mathematics. But the next morning, when he tried to log into the online platform used by his school in Gurugram, Haryana, he was unable to.

“It kept saying the password had been changed eight hours ago,” recalled Kumar, whose actual name has been withheld on request. The Class 8 student missed out on the test. “I was really sad because I was 100% prepared for it.”

The school authorities told his parents that a “technical glitch” had prevented him from accessing the online platform. But when the glitch continued for over a week, the parents grew convinced that the school had deliberately locked their son out of online classes because they had refused to pay the annual fee of Rs 32,000, in addition to the monthly tuition fees of Rs 6,000, which they paid regularly.

Kumar’s school campus had been closed to students since March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began. “If the students are not able to use the school facilities, then what is the point of paying the full fees,” his father reasoned.

At least seven other students whose parents hadn’t paid the annual fees had been similarly barred from attending online classes, he said. “They purposely block the child’s log in on the day of the unit test so that parents panic and pay the full fees,” he alleged. contacted the principal of Kumar’s school, Euro International, but she did not respond to text messages or calls. This article will be updated if she responds.

The experience of Kumar and his schoolmates may not be an exception. This year, more than 12.5 lakh students have gone missing from the enrollment records of Haryana’s 8,900 private schools, The Indian Express reported. A large number of them are likely to have dropped out because their parents, facing job and income losses in the pandemic, can no longer afford to pay private school fees.

But there were several instances where schools had blocked the IDs of students to force parents into paying the fees, Mahavir Singh, additional chief secretary of education in Haryana, told the Times of India.

Parents vs private schools

It has been a difficult year for Kumar’s family.

At a time when inflation continues to rise steeply, his 43-year-old father, the only earning member, sustained a 15% pay cut at the private firm where he works as a chartered accountant.

The closure of schools and the transition to online education has added to the family’s expenses. Kumar’s parents had to spend Rs 48,000 to purchase a laptop for him, and Rs 14,000 for a mobile phone for his eight-year-old sister who studies in Class 4.

“Everyone is losing jobs,” Kumar’s father said. “It is an unjustified demand [to pay full fees]. We are spending on electricity and Wi-Fi. But the school has not done anything to help us with that.”

Unable to pay the total fees, Kumar’s father along with 58 other parents sent a letter to the school authorities in March, requesting them to waive off the annual fee till schools were allowed to reopen or allow parents to pay it in instalments. But the school authorities refused to do so citing their fixed expenses like maintenance and salaries of staffers.

When some children were barred from attending classes in July, their parents decided to mobilise others in their support. They convinced the parents of 50 students to get them to boycott classes. “If we do not unite then the school will do as it pleases,” said Kumar’s father. “Why did they block the students? This goes against their right to education.”

Other parents who joined the protest said it was necessary to set an example. A 31-year old woman whose daughter studies in the same school said blocking children from accessing classes was “completely unethical”. “Parents are not ATMs, we are also human,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “So why this pressure and threat?”

A week after the protest, the school authorities held a meeting with a group of parents and agreed to restore the log in details of those students who had been barred, Kumar’s father said. But they refused to waive off the annual fees. At best, they said they could offer a 25% discount on it and waive off one month of tuition fee for those who had paid it regularly for seven months. Most parents had not accepted these terms, he said.

For the students caught in the midst of this tussle, the experience of being locked out of class for one week was traumatic. Afraid of missing out on new concepts being taught as part of the syllabus, Kumar studied on his own with the help of his mother.

“I was a little bit scared,” he said. “But no one understood this. The school did not even care.”

This is the second part in a series documenting the impact of schools remaining closed for 500 days in India. Read the other stories here.