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The outbreak of coronavirus has affected the functioning of all sorts of organizations and institutions in India, with many states under lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. Amidst the pandemic, the Indian education system has undergone a paradigm shift. Schools and colleges stay temporarily closed, and there is no certainty when they will reopen. The education sector has been significantly disrupted, with the structure of schooling and learning to be affected at first by these closures.
Some of the private schools on the other hand, were able to adopt online teaching methods, while most Government schools remained completely shut down for not having access to e-learning tools. The Karnataka High Court held that the Government orders banning online classes violate the Fundamental Right to Life and Education protected under Article 21 and 21A of the Indian Constitution.
Facts of the issue
The State Government passed Orders on June 15 and June 27 for banning the conduct of online classes from pre-primary to class 10 categories of students. Petitions were filed against the State Government’s order, where it was submitted before the Court, that a complete ban on the conduct of online classes would violate the Right to Education under Article 21A of the Indian Constitution. The Bench had been informed by the Government, that an Expert Committee had been set up, to suggest scientific methods of offering online education, based on which the Government took its decision to pass the aforesaid Orders, which were the subject matter of challenge in these Petitions. The Court was also informed by the Government that interim arrangements had been made to allow online classes to be conducted by the schools, for primary students up to the level of class five. This order had come after petitions were filed before the Court on a complete ban on online classes. The Division Bench comprising of Chief Justice Abhay Srinivas Oka and Justice Nataraj Rangaswamy issued an interim direction staying the government orders banning online classes.
Legal provisions involved
In the present scenario, e-learning is the only possible way to impart education to students, as schools continue to remain shut down. The Bench observed that the orders issued by the State Government were not issued in exercise of any statutory power. With the ratification of the law, reasonable restrictions could have been imposed on the exercise of fundamental rights, but the Karnataka Education Act, 1983, cannot be the law that permits the State Government to issue such orders. However, the Court pointed out that school authorities have no right to make online education compulsory for students or charge any extra fee for that matter. As per the petition filed before the Court, the orders passed by the Government under Article 162 of the Indian Constitution cannot violate the fundamental rights under Article 21 and 21A. Article 162 extends the Executive Power of a State to make laws which shall be subjected to, and limited by, the Executive Power as expressly conferred by the Indian Constitution or by any law made by Parliament. Article 21A provides for ‘free and compulsory’ education to all children in the age group of six to fourteen years as a fundamental right. Free and compulsory education means that no child, shall be liable to pay any kind of fees or charges while completing elementary education. Compulsory education lays down an obligation on the Government and local authorities to ensure admission, attendance, and completion of education by all children in the 6 to 14 year age group. Further, it was clarified that those who do not opt for online education should not be deprived of normal education when schools resume the conduct of physical classes. The Court added that the government would have to create possibilities and provide infrastructure to give education to students of the Government schools.
The orders passed by the State Government had no ‘rational basis’ to ban the conduct of online education. The fact that the State is unable to extend e-learning tools to a certain category of schools, is not a ground to hold back other schools, who could adapt to online education from extending online education services. On June 27, the State Government modified the order, thereby allowing online classes for limited hours to students from pre-primary to class five provided they follow the guidelines laid down by the authorities. The State re-affirmed that the ban was only an interim measure until the government explored methods to ensure that no student shall be deprived of education on account of a lack of access to the internet. However, students between 0-6 years are a delicate subject that needs to be dealt with not only from the point of view of fundamental or educational rights but also keeping in mind child psychology. If eight students out of ten are taking online classes and two are not, then they will be left out. Elementary education is not only about schooling, but equally about parenting. How children are going to react to online classes is a matter of concern for educational institutions. The teachings of elementary education will lay the foundation of the personality of children.
As schools are shut down and uncertainty lies in the education sector as to when will the physical classes will commence, the only option one could resort to, is to adapt to e-learning tools. The pandemic has pushed schooling on to online platforms, and educational institutions across the board are compelled to utilize the available technological tools to help create an environment for learning for students in all sectors. The State should be made responsible for making arrangements to provide tools and equipment necessary for effective online education. The post-coronavirus future might consist of distant learning, meaning, there can be a shift in the entire education system, thereby not disrupting the process of learning among students at large. Students, parents, and educators will have to prepare themselves to bring the best out of online education, and in the process start adapting to a new approach; powerful learning experiences that will provide good quality education.
Perhaps, online learning will be here for a long time as the online mode has suddenly become the default mode of education, during this pandemic crisis. The pandemic is set to change the world sooner than we know, therefore preparation has to be done on an individual level and State level, to not get affected by its vulnerabilities, while maximizing human potential and resourcefulness at the same time.
Author: Yeesha Sharma from Gujarat National Law University.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India