It is reasonable to plan for school exams in summer, if progress on COVID-19 holds

Buoyed by vaccine optimism, educational administrators are working with vigour to end the prolonged disruption to schooling, and conduct traditional pen-and-paper public examinations in 2021. The CBSE, with more than 20,000 schools under its ambit at the secondary level, has weighed in favour of written mode tests, obviously counting on progress in dealing with the pandemic. As a system with 1.2 million students registering for its senior school certificate examination, and covering schools for expatriates as well, the Board is a bellwether for academic schedules. Quite fortuitously, it was able to wrap up its 2020 examination schedule that began in mid-February, without getting derailed by the national lockdown in March. State Boards, however, are yet to make up their minds on the schedule for annual examinations and the academic session for next year; badly affected Maharashtra and Gujarat are thinking of postponing the final examinations. Reflecting the overall concern on lost academic activities, the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations has appealed to States to allow its schools to open Classes 10 and 12 in a limited way early in January. These dilemmas reflect those felt across the globe on arriving at a safe compromise on schooling. In addition, there is also the likely conflict between summer elections in large States such as Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Kerala, and the examination schedule for 2021.
The strongest argument in favour of a written Board examination is that it eliminates asymmetrical access, including technology deficits, and gives all pupils an equal opportunity to score. Students are relieved that, in line with the experience in countries such as the U.K., the syllabus has been significantly pared down and examination schedules may be put off by a few months beyond March. The availability of a good vaccine that will also cover teachers and students through a staggered programme is arguably key to determining the coming years academic time-table. Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyals move to hear public concerns on such issues through an online consultation is a positive step to build consensus. The international view, summarised by the U.S. infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is that given a choice between bars and schools, it is the latter that should be kept open, posing a lower risk of large-scale infections. India is better placed than America or Europe to provide ventilated classrooms, an important factor in controlling viral spread, because of the climate. Yet, a definitive view on the school schedule for 2021 is not possible until the course of the pandemic over the next few months becomes clear. Poor adherence to safety norms by the average citizen can only jeopardise the reopening of schools further, even with a vaccine available.