Allahabad HC gives Respite to schools on payment of fee during lockdown but schools must show benevolence

The Allahabad High Court on 24 June  dismissed the plea demanding full waiver on school and college fee in the state of Uttar Pradesh for the period they have been closed or will remain so due to the COVID pandemic.

A division  bench of the High Court dismissed the plea by local resident Ashutosh Kumar Pandey, terming his writ petition as wholly misconceived. The plea of the petitioner did not find favour of the bench. It observed thus:

“Most of the schools and colleges are taking up on-line classes for students and teachers are taking either live classes or sending videos to the students. Students are even being given homework and the same is being checked by the teachers….

Moreover, in any case, the pleadings made in the writ petition are insufficient to invoke the extra-ordinary jurisdiction of the high court in the nature of public interest litigation.” 

Earlier, the Telangana High Court also had refused to intervene in matter of payment of school fee for conducting online classes instead of Physical Classes.  It is pertinent to note that a petition was filed by Abdul Raheem in public interest pleading that  the action of private schools in forcing students and their parents to pay full tuition fee for the online classes is arbitrary & erroneous. The petitioner argued that  the motive of private schools was only to gain money during these troubled times and also lamented that due to circular not being issued in this matter by the government the students & their parents are suffering. However, a bench  of the Telangana High Court observed that the court cannot direct the government to take a policy decision on online classes conducted by private schools. “It is the duty of the state to take policy decisions considering the plight of people,” the High Court observed.

The Telangana High Court did not allow relief to the petitioner although he drew the attention of the Court to the fact that the schools in West Bengal have waived the tuition fee. The petitioner also referred to the judgement of the Uttarakhand High Court judgment on the same issue. The bench observed that the order of the Uttarakhand High Court was based on a circular issued by the Uttarakhand government and questioned whether any such circular was issued by the Telangana government. “If there are no rules or guidelines that prohibit schools from running online classes, the court cannot interfere,” the High Court  opined and dismissed the writ petition.

It will be worthwhile to refer to a recent decision of the Uttarakhand High Court which ruled that students without access to online course cannot be asked to pay the tuition fee. The directions of the court came while hearing public interest litigations filed by Japinder Singh, a social worker from Dehradun earlier this month.

The Court observed thus:

“It does appear that subtle means are being adopted by these private institutions to force parents to pay the tuition fees……Since payment of tuition fees by students is voluntary, none of the private schools shall send e-mails or WhatsApp messages or any form of communication to the parents calling upon them to pay the tuition fees.”

The High Court  also directed the state government to appoint the district education officer and the block development officer, in each district as nodal officers to whom complaints can be addressed by parents who are being coerced to pay tuition fees by private schools. The Court also directed the State Government to give  publicity in the media informing the public at large and also to take action against the erring educational institutions who are coercing parents to pay the tuition fees of their wards.The Court also directed the Secretary, School Education Department to submit a detailed report whether tuition fees is being collected even from those students who have no access to the online course offered by the schools.

Over a month after the Uttarakhand High Court’s judgement, the State government  issued an order stating  that only those private schools which have been imparting education through online classes or other communication modes during the lockdown period will be allowed to charge only the tuition fee. The schools cannot charge any other fee from parents. The fresh order applies to all day-run and day-boarding private schools.

“However, if a school is teaching extra subjects through online mode of teaching, then fee for such courses based on a previously set fee, can be charged above the tuition fee,” the order says.

The order further states that “If certain parents despite taking the benefit of online education are not able to pay the fee then they shall write to the school principal or the school’s managing committee, explaining why they are unable to pay the fee and seek extension of time for paying the fee. In such a situation, the school management will allow the parent to pay the fee in the extended time period, but in any condition whatsoever, the student will not be removed from the school.” The order also mentions that for the academic year 2020-21, private schools shall not increase fee for anything in any situation whatsoever.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court was also seized of a similar matter. The Court disposing a PIL on June 2, 2020  observed that non-payment of school fee by any parent would not result in denial of education or any other adverse consequence to the student.The Bench also laid emphasis on Clause 4 of the Government order dated May 18 saying that “neither any name of any student is to be struck off nor he/she is to be deprived of teaching on account of non-payment of fee”.

From the aforesaid, it is amply clear that none of the High Courts have ruled for denial of school fee due to Covid pandemic particularly because they are holding virtual classes.It cannot be certainly disputed that the school is imparting education virtually through all available technologies as available to them. The teachers and the management are making fullest efforts to conduct classes virtually. But at the same time it should be kept in mind that there are certain expenses regarding charges for actual use of electricity, air-conditioning expenses, conveyance allowance for staff, refreshment to students & staff, generator running expenses, expenses towards consumables and other allied expenses attributable to physical running of schools, which are not being incurred by the schools in present times due to closure of schools. It is a common knowledge that the schools have retrenched and done away with its casual and contract workforce. It is also noteworthy that most of the schools are being run by philanthropic affluent people/ societies who are committed to imparting quality education with charitable motives. Most of the schools have surplus funds and reserves. Their role has always been applauded by both by the society and the government. There can be no denial to the fact that the parents are finding it difficult to pay school fee in these difficult times when small businesses and small scale industries are almost closed down. The rising fear of mass unemployment amongst employees is making the economic conditions more precarious & common man mentally unnerved.

It is still a long time when the schools would physically open. It is worth mentioning that some schools have voluntarily reduced/ waived/exempted school fee especially for students who either are unable to take virtual classes or who are finding it difficult to make payment of school fee or even otherwise. Some schools have granted rebate/waiver of some portion of the school fee as a goodwill gesture. It is expected that the schools would follow suit and show benevolence and grant rebate/reduction in school fee for the benefit of common man in these difficult times arising due to Covid pandemic.

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