In a little over two weeks from now, starting in the first week of July 2020, over 1 crore students or more are supposed to complete their Class 10 and Class 12 board examinations, which were interrupted by the clamping of a lockdown at four hours’ notice, starting on March 25. Among them is my son, who has three papers due in his ISC examinations.

These examinations are conducted by a number of boards, with the largest of them being Central Board of Secondary Education. The others include the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations, which, like the CBSE, operates at a national level, and the various state education boards – some of whom have in fact started conducting their examinations already. The CBSE and the ISC also run examinations for several “Indian” schools in foreign countries.

The original examination schedule did enable some students to complete all their papers before the lockdown, but a large number of them have to complete several papers still.

Inexplicably, and recklessly, the examinations have been scheduled across India – cities and rural areas – for a time when the number of individuals affected by Covid-19 is rising steeply, with no abatement in site. Growing at close to 12,000 cases a day (according to data on June 14), the daily growth numbers are expected to climb at least through the rest of June and all of July. Delhi alone has projected 5.5 lakh cases by the end of July.

Uncalculated risk

By any rational standards, this is an enormous risk being imposed on the students by the combined efforts of the examination boards and the educations ministries at the Centre and in the states. With all views concurring that infections are spreading at an increasing pace, there is no wisdom in wilfully exposing young people to the risk of falling ill with Covid-19. It does not require deep thinking or an avalanche of power point projections to intuit the dangers of putting a number of people in together an enclosed space for several hours.

In fact, it is impossible to understand how all these students can expect to stay safe and protected from infection when they have to step out of their homes, travel to the examination centre, spend several hours there taking their tests, and return home. With the spread of the contagion out of anyone’s control, not even the best efforts of the school authorities can ensure a perfectly sterile environment.

What complicates matters is that spot checks of body temperatures of all candidates cannot detect asymptomatic carriers of the disease. The carriers themselves may well be unaware of their status. Nor has a protocol has been declared for anyone who is found to have a fever. Imagine the panic that will ensue if a candidate is suddenly discovered to have a high temperature.

Another question that has not even been taken into consideration – typical of most central and state administrations’ inabilities to see beyond their noses – is that of transport. With public transport yet to run at full capacity, how are students who do not have access to private transport expected to travel to and from their examination venues?

Students in Chennai take their Class 12 exams on March 24. Credit: PTI

Were one or more students to actually contract the virus infection in the process of taking the examinations, the outcome cannot even be imagined. Considering that the Human Resource Ministry at the Centre has declared that schools in general will not reopen till after August 15 at the earliest – and many of the state governments also postponing the reopening of schools – the insistence on holding these examinations in these circumstances is both irrational and irresponsible.

The alternative?

That the examinations are important for these students, who will either go on to college after Class 12, or to specialised studies for Class 11 and 12, is beyond dispute. It could be argued that the Class 12 examinations are perhaps more important, as the marks and grades received are usually the basis on which students are admitted to the majority of colleges and universities – some hold entrance tests or apply other screening processes – across India. But then, college admission schedules have already gone awry, with most universities being forced to delay them because they have been unable to complete their own examinations.

In comparison, the Class 10 board examinations, which often turn into a process for students to decide which “stream” of studies to enter – broadly, commerce, science, or humanities – are arguably not as decisive. Perhaps with this view, a few of the state boards have cancelled the Class 10 board examinations – those in Punjab, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, for instance.

Similarly, the Maharashtra government has declared its opposition to holding ICSE examinations in July. On the other hand, Kerala – where the management of the pandemic has been largely exemplary – has been insisting on holding the examinations, although they have been postponed further.

It’s not surprising, then, that parents of some of the students have been mobilising their own numbers to start campaigns in various forms urging the governments to cancel this year’s examinations. As a parent, I am only too aware where my anxiety lies, and it is really not about the educational outcome but about my child’s health.

So, while one group of parents has moved the Bombay High Court with a plea to cancel the ICSE and ISC examinations, another group has filed a plea in the Supreme Court with a similar demand for the CBSE Class 12 examinations. The health of the students is the primary concern in both the pleas. There has also been a tweetstorm by the parents of Class 10 ICSE students, with some 28,000 tweets generated in an hour.

What is the alternative to holding the remaining exams, however? Is there a reasonable assessment system that can be used to assign marks and grades to the students, so that their future educational trajectories are not disturbed? There almost certainly is one, either being devised, or already in place.

After all, the CBSE Board has already declared it will not hold examinations in schools abroad as well as in some places in India – which means it has worked out a way to assess all students whether they take their examinations or not. The other boards can surely find out and adopt the same or a similar method. With copious examinations taking place internally during the school year, it should not be too difficult to, for instance, ask schools for these marks and then run them through a statistical process to ensure normalisation.

What the boards – and the governments – must consider is that anxiety is mounting amongst students, who young minds have already been subjected to a great deal of uncertainty already. Prolonging these, and risking their health in the process, by forcing them to take examinations for which alternatives are available cannot be the right choice in any circumstances.

As is obvious to everyone, 2020 is not a normal year for any aspect of life, including the education calendar. Improvisation is essential. And the physical and mental well-being of the next generation of Indians is surely too important to be sacrificed.

Update: According to advocate Arvind Tiwari, who filed the PIL, the ISC board offered an alternative during Monday’s Bombay High Court hearing. This allows each student to either take their remaining papers, as scheduled, or be assessed on the basis of their pre-board or any other examination conducted internally by their respective schools. The board specified that this applies only to subjects for which examinations have not been held already. The Bombay High Court is scheduled to consider the proposal at the next hearing of the case, on Wednesday, June 17.