Covid-19: Tussle over fee structure clouds online schooling

Shawn Sebastian

At the height of the Covid-19 induced lockdown when classes went online, Swapna Betty (name changed), a primary school teacher in a private school in Kochi had an unusual task on hand – calling up parents and requesting them to pay their children’s pending school fees. Many teachers like her were compelled to do the same since their own pay was at risk if students didn’t pay up.

When schools closed their gates after a nationwide lockdown was announced in the last week of March 2020, educational institutes, like other sectors, were caught off guard. Parents and children were anxious about the compromises they would have to make to their academics. When the 20-21 academic year began, school managements and teachers realized they would have to make way for an alternative way to impart education. Online classes soon became the new normal. Sustained, uninterrupted education was important to allay the fears of parents and students as much as it was for the survival of managements and faculty.

While some schools built on their existing online teaching mechanisms, for a majority of schools and teachers, the shift towards a complete ‘e-learning’ and distance education was a new experience which disrupted their well-oiled system.

At the receiving end of the online experiment were the children who bore the anxieties of their teachers and parents alike. Teachers, especially women, struggled to demarcate a workspace within the confines of their homes. Confronted with household chores on the one hand and a laptop classroom with hundreds of students to manage on the other, the transition was not easy for the teachers. Worried parents who saw the online learning through a prism of suspicion or as inferior to the physical class stayed glued to their child’s laptop/mobile screen and monitored the developments with a tinge of anxiousness.

The management and administrative wing of educational institutes went for an overhaul as well. When schools and colleges were shut, the fee payment mechanism was disrupted. When online learning began, the administration pushed students to pay up the pending fee. Disgruntled parents raised objections and demanded a fee reduction since they felt many of the recurring expenses such as school infrastructure fee need not be charged in an online learning ecosystem. The managements were not willing to budge. Citing losses in their balance sheet and pointing to unforeseen expenses such as the creation of online teaching mechanisms, recurring infrastructure maintenance costs, they stood their ground.

Many parents felt the heat of the financial burden in the wake of pandemic-related job losses and pay cuts. They believed that schools were reaping profits by charging the same fee structure as before when several payment structures such as infrastructure costs were not relevant in the new normal.

In many cases teachers like Betty had to mediate between the administration and parents.

“It was very hard in the beginning,” she recalls her recurrent phone conversations with parents, reminding them of the pending fee. Betty said several parents refused to answer phone calls and avoided interaction making her feel like a pestering call centre employee canvassing for a sale.

“Teachers like us had to do it since the management warned that our salary would be cut if there is a fee deficit,” said Betty, whose husband’s travel business had suffered huge losses in the pandemic and she could not have accommodated further cuts in her modest salary.

According to Betty, the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) in her school is very vocal and they had threatened the administration with a strike if the fee was not slashed. The management had teachers like Betty in the forefront to mediate with the parents. Through these teachers, the school managed to convince the parents that only the tuition fee was being charged and timely payment was needed for the school to function.

“After several interactions, I was able to convince them that they have to pay for the sake of their children,” she says adding that as parents got used to the online learning eco-system, their apprehension with the fee structure also passed.

The tussle between school managements and parents over the school fee remained a constant feature throughout the post-Covid-19 period. Several school managements such as an association of private schools in Karnataka were compelled to take a stand that students would be barred entry to online classes if they did not pay their dues.

Taking a realistic view of the grim economic situation thrown up by the pandemic, state and central governments warned educational institutes from hiking fees in the 2020-21 academic year. In April 2020, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Ramesh Pokhriyal had urged private schools to reconsider the annual fee hike. Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, had stressed that no private school would be allowed to increase the fees without government permission. The Government of Kerala maintained that the fees should not be increased and ordered a rollback if any school was found to have increased its fees.

In Kerala, the issue resulted in a series of litigations, prompting the High Court of Kerala to intervene. Citing that their children studying in A.C.E Public School in Malappuram District (CBSE affiliated school), were barred from attending online classes because of non-payment of fees, a few parents approached the State Child Rights Commission for relief. In its order, the commission not only asked for the students to be taken back into the online classes but also pronounced a blanket 25% fee reduction in this academic year for all CBSE affiliated schools in the state.

Opposing the same, several schools approached the High Court for relief. In its order, the court has stayed the Child Rights Commission’s blanket order citing that neither the commission nor the CBSE has the power to regulate fees. The court said it is the prerogative of the respective state governments to take a call on the fee structure. The court has also asked the District Education Officers to inspect the balance sheets of private schools and submit a report detailing their present financial health so that a further call on fee hike could be taken.

Many among the private managements feel that the government is not taking a realistic look at the issue and is not heeding to their cause.

D. Shashi Kumar, general secretary of Associated Managements of English Medium Schools in Karnataka, says that despite several petitions from them urging the government to issue an order asking parents to pay up the pending fees, the government has not acted in their favour.

“For several students, the fee for the previous academic year itself is pending,” says Kumar, adding that most schools have been conducting online classes without collecting the fees.

“Many schools have now reached a position where they won’t be able to run without collecting the fees,” says Kumar adding that the precarious position they are in made them give an ultimatum to students that those with a pending fee will be barred from attending online classes.

On the other side of the spectrum, some of the parents have been disgruntled with school managements for not paying heed to their crisis. Parents like Hari Manthena, who worked as a software engineer in Hyderabad, complains that the management of a private school in Hyderabad where his son and daughter study, failed to understand the dire situation he was in.

Manthena had been laid off from his job before the pandemic and had remained unemployed at the height of the pandemic. Since he could not afford the exorbitant rents in Hyderabad, he moved to his native place in Guntur.

Even after the new academic year began, and till October, he was unable to pay his children’s school fees. After getting repeated phone calls from the school administration, he sought a concession.

“Despite my repeated pleas, the Principal and the management refused to slash the fees,” says Manthena adding that the school justified its stand by affirming that it needed to pay regular salaries to the staff in addition to maintaining the school infrastructure.

Manthena says he was warned by the administration in a text message that his children would be denied entry to online classes if the dues were not cleared.

“Fearing for my children’s future, I somehow raised money to pay the fees,” says Manthena who added that the management also warned him that it wouldn’t release his children’s transfer certificates until the dues were cleared.

Though several parents like Manthena pooled in their resources to pay the school fees, they continue to harbour the feeling that the school administration is turning a blind eye to the grim economic situation that has engulfed middle-class parents.

He felt that the school management is capitalizing on the fears and apprehensions of parents who believe that their children’s academic career would be disrupted if they miss out on classes.

“I am not happy with the quality of the online class,” Manthena says, adding that his son who is in class 10 used to score an aggregate ‘A’ grade until last year, whereas his performance in this academic year has not been good.

“My children were shy to clear their doubts with teachers in virtual classrooms,” says Manthena who affirms that the quality of online education is definitely inferior to that of the physical classroom.

Education experts voice the view that parents’ develop a problem with paying the regular fee mostly when they are not satisfied with the online classes.

Dileep Vasu, Principal of Choithram International School, Indore, says that a majority of the schools and teachers were not prepared or equipped to deliver quality online education. Caught off guard by the pandemic, many developed a hands-on experimental approach which was not received well by the parents, he said. “It is natural for parents to be upset with schools charging regular fees in such a scenario,” Vasu feels. His school which follows an IB curriculum had toyed with online learning as early as in 2010.

“We had a system in place and parents were very happy with the online classes,” he said believing that schools can allay parents’ fears by making sure that the quality is not compromised in virtual classrooms. Managing a cordial and friendly relation with parents helped him tide over the crisis that had engulfed many other schools.

“In some schools, parents were forced to take the extreme step of protest, litigation and dharna because the principal and the school management were not approachable,” notes Vasu.

In his school, even though a majority of the students come from relatively affluent backgrounds, many parents who run business establishments were severely hit by the pandemic.

“On a case-to-case basis, I gave a fee concession to those that needed it,” he said adding that at the time of a crisis one must support each other to build a good rapport in the future.

Despite opposition from parents, he managed to convince 90 per cent of them on why the school was not in a position to slash the fee. The delay in fee payment did not hinder payment of salaries to the teaching staff.

Sangamitra Sreenivas, who teaches mathematics at Maharishi Vidya Mandir, Hyderabad, feels that parents understand the effort of teachers since they are monitoring the classes from home.

“Unlike a regular classroom, parents are more aware than ever of their child’s academic progress and are now in a position to judge the teacher’s performance,” says Sreenivas who has been teaching at the school for nearly 15 years.

She said that no parent had any complaints about the quality of teaching and that it was not a reason for their unwillingness to pay the school fees. While accepting that negotiations with parents over school fee payment remained a constant feature throughout the pandemic, she feels that it is part of her duty to mediate between the agitated parents and school administration in this extraordinary situation.

“I heard really sad stories from several helpless parents who were unable to pay the fees on time,” said Sreenivas adding that she put across such genuine cases before the management.

“As things stand, the school has a fee deficit of 25% in this academic year,” says Sreenivas adding that the school administrations took into consideration the financial burden of some parents and allowed a concession to those who required it.

At the peak of the crisis when the school’s finances were tight, 10% of the teaching staff’s salary was withheld by the management. However, when the situation improved, the same was paid back, she says. Such gestures from the administration created a positive impact among teachers and they now have taken the lead to convince parents.

Her school, like many others, have allowed parents to pay the fees on a monthly basis instead of term payment and have permitted delayed payment as well, she says, adding that leaving out a student from the online classroom would be the last thing a school would do.

However, it is a fact that the situation may not be as rosy for several teachers across the country.

Raju Davis, who is the Chairman of Raju Davis International School in Thrissur, Kerala, says that leaving aside the international schools, teachers from other private schools bore the brunt of the financial strain faced by schools.

“I know several schools which have been paying only half the salary to teachers,” says Davis who added that many schools that he is aware of are also on the brink of closure with parents refusing to pay the fees.

Commenting that it is unfortunate to cut the teaching staff’s salary, he felt that teachers have more tension and stress in virtual classrooms. “They are not trained enough to handle the interface and most importantly manage the stressful environment at home where professional and private lives are intertwined,” he observed.

Speaking of his experience in dealing with agitated parents, he said once the quality of the online class and the additional expenses incurred for the same was communicated to the parents, their concerns were laid to rest.

Management representatives like Davis justified the existing fee structure by communicating the upgradations they have brought into the teaching system. His school invested Rs. 50 lakh to set up 13 studio classrooms with digital panel boards and has also trained the teaching staff to handle the new interface. In addition, he says he would need a minimum of Rs. 30 lakh to make functional the 28 school buses lying idle since March 2020.

“At the moment, only about 70 parents in our school who have genuine financial difficulties have their children’s fee pending,” says Davis who believes that proper communication of the schools’ financial situation with parents along with ensuring the quality of online education has helped his school manage the situation relatively well.

There is no doubt that teachers who are the backbone of schooling have their task cut out in the post-Covid-19 education system. They are pushed by circumstances to move beyond their regular work affair to step-in and ease the tension between anxious parents and struggling managements. When the pandemic passes and the classrooms become vibrant again, the effort of scores of teachers who helped to keep the system running during these difficult times must be remembered and valued.

The author is an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Kochi. He can be reached at

[email protected].

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