Government teachers perform frontline functions, but have denied this status
For more than a month or more, teachers’ union newspapers and email newsletters have written about the plight of teachers who participated in state elections, run COVID-19 quarantine centers , held panchayat elections and working effectively as frontline workers in the administration – without being granted that status. Uttar Pradesh alone has lost 1,621 teachers as of May 17, 2021. More recently, the Telangana Teachers’ Federation mentionned that 230 teachers lost their lives in the second wave. In Maharashtra, at least 220 teachers lost their lives and in Madhya Pradesh, there are reports more than 51 deaths. There are some patchy reports of teachers falling ill and hospitalized in West Bengal and we still do not have adequate information from states like Assam.
Among the factors that have led so many teachers to contract COVID-19 are
- attend workshops for state or panchayat elections, where nearly 1,000 teachers have been trained at one site without COVID-19 protocols being followed;
- social distancing or sanitation practices were not respected during the elections
- manage tasks related to COVID-19 relief, such as overseeing quarantine camps
- attending school and running online classes from school, visiting families of children as part of outreach programs in several southern states; and
- perform various teaching tasks
For more than four months, teachers’ unions have been calling for them to be treated as front-line workers and vaccinated as a priority. With the exception of very few states, this request was not favorably received by the government. Only Kerala has declared them frontline workers. There are rumors, as yet unverified, of Tamil Nadu doing the same. Combined with vaccine shortages and the need for increased surveillance by state governments, teachers in public schools (both regular and contract) have been at the forefront of government efforts to manage the pandemic. Even contract teachers (Shiksha mitras at UP for example) were called to work, even if their wages were not paid for long periods.
What do these developments tell us about the real status of public school teachers across India? Yes, their primary identity is that of a government official or employee – who is supposed to answer the call of duty. Teachers do not challenge their status as civil servants, but their changing status. As civil servants (especially contract teachers), they are expected to do whatever they are asked to do, but do not get the same status as other frontline workers.
The second worrying dimension is that their primary role as teachers is often overlooked. As a result, many of them spoke of their inability to organize online courses or provide on-site learning materials to children in villages. Likewise, when called for training workshops (e.g. for state and panchayat elections), basic COVID-19 protocols like social distancing, mandatory masking, and avoidance of closed spaces are often bypassed. Teachers say that they are expected to communicate these protocols to others, but that they are not followed when participating in workshops or other activities.
The situation in Telangana is particularly noteworthy as unions have demanded that if a teacher is infected or dies, the government should not only bear the costs of hospitalization, but also provide financial assistance of Rs 1 crore to family. In Uttar Pradesh, teachers with an advanced stage of pregnancy were not exempt from their electoral obligations, even though they went to court to seek an exemption. Similar cases are also cited in other states. UP teachers’ unions have also demanded compensation and jobs for the families of the deceased teachers.
The biggest problem facing school teachers is that they are divided into different unions. As a result, they have little bargaining power. Competing unions often do not collaborate with each other, even when common issues such as illness and death from COVID-19 are brought to their attention. Unions aligned with the ruling party in a state adopt a hands-off attitude. This approach has gradually eroded the status of teachers’ unions and they are unable to collectively bargain for better treatment or essential support.
Many teachers, especially women, are reluctant to join a union – or even if they do, they keep a low profile. The leadership of teachers’ unions is dominated by men and female teachers do not have the opportunity to voice their concerns or grievances. Several teachers have taken to social media – fearing what the 2021 census exercise would bring, as the pandemic is not in sight. Scientists are warning of a third wave and the government is also warning people of vaccine shortages.
There is one more thing. Teacher unions have not discussed what needs to be done before schools reopen – after the pandemic ends or after a majority of the adult population is vaccinated. On the one hand, there are reports and stories on social media about the trauma suffered by children and teachers, the closing of small, low-cost private schools and the impending increase in enrollment in public schools. Associations of small private schools have already said they may struggle to reopen after suffering huge financial losses. Families who have lost their jobs or lost their source of income can no longer afford school fees. Migration from urban to rural areas can also add another dimension to this tragic scenario.
Perhaps now is the time for teacher unions and teacher associations to come together and consider how the education landscape has changed since the pandemic. All stakeholders must recognize the need to rethink and reshape the functioning of public schools and the position of teachers in the government system. Government – central and state – needs to be more receptive to new ideas. For example, in Rajasthan, there is a lot of talk about how the government can handle increased enrollment, strengthen primary health care, provide district and sub-district hospitals with more facilities to manage pandemics, etc. Discussions are currently quite low-key and are taking place both within government and among civil society organizations.
We, as a country, have the opportunity to reinvent our school teaching structure, to help teachers become self-reliant and responsible to children and their parents. Breaking down the hierarchical structure will not only help teachers regain their voice and status, but also ensure that every child can realize their right to education, their right to learn and the right to be treated with kindness and dignity.
Is it too much to ask?