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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Hard times

Traders selling school uniforms take to selling innerwear while school van drivers now eke out a living by vending on the footpaths. The Indian Express finds out how the pandemic impacted those on the fringes of the education business

Written by Hina Rohtaki | Chandigarh | Updated: December 30, 2020 12:03:32 pm
Hard timesEven as other businesses opened up gradually and students continued to engage with their teachers through online classes, there was negligible demand for uniforms, accessories and school buses. (Express Photo)

In March early this year, they were preparing for the new session. Their shops were brimful with new stock, fancy school bags, uniforms of various sizes, and colourful stationery worth lakhs as the schools readied to roll out the new session. And then their world turned upside down.

Little did the famous ‘Mayor school uniforms’ in Sector 8 know that 2020 would consign the uniforms to store and force them to sell nightwear and lingerie to make ends meet.

Even as other businesses opened up gradually and students continued to engage with their teachers through online classes, there was negligible demand for uniforms, accessories and school buses. For all those into businesses allied to schools, 2020 was an unmitigated disaster.

Step into the Sector 8 outlet of Mayor school uniforms, and you will be greeted by nightwear.

Bus contractors said that even the yearly insurance of school buses has lapsed and they don’t have funds to renew it. (Express photo)

A woman manager laments, “Schools can compel the parents to pay fee for online classes but they can’t compel them to wear school uniforms and then attend classes. We didn’t have any idea that our business will ever dry up like this. Now we are surviving by selling lingerie et al. Our uniforms and bags are lying packed. We had a big store in the Industrial area also but it is deserted as no one needs uniforms, bags, or tiffins to attend virtual classes.”

NK Jain who owns Fashioners school uniform in Sector 17, Chandigarh, said they are suffering huge losses. “We have a large stock of unsold school uniforms, bags, shoes et al.”

Generally, this time of the year sees parents of kindergarteners making purchases for the coming session, but given the Covid uncertainty, not many are venturing out this time.,

The famous Manchanda book store also wears a deserted look. Sales, we are told, have fallen to 20 percent.

“We have introduced a gift section but even that isn’t working. It is all because children stopped moving out. Children will buy our stuff only when they move out with their friends or go for birthday parties. But nothing happened this year. Ours was the business that suffered the most. Thankfully this building is ours, else we would have also had to shoulder the burden of rent,” said a sales manager.

Covid-19 brought the classroom home, and gave parents the liberty to enter it at their choosing.

Some schools did try to keep the same routine for students with their teachers beginning assembly or yoga at 8.30 am followed by classes and a break at 11, all online.

Atul Khanna, Director of Strawberry Fields High School, said, “Covid grounded all of us. It struck us unexpectedly. It created new challenges for parents, students and teachers. Making online learning a way of life was exciting but not an easy task. Students adapted well but we realise it cannot substitute for physical classroom learning.”

He added, “It has made us acutely aware of the gap between the privileged and not so privileged. That is an area that needs serious thought. To expect students in rural areas to have smart phones, laptops, uninterrupted internet connectivity and the ability to concentrate virtually is not realistic. Overall the education sector has tremendous resilience but there is a lot of ground still that needs to be covered.”
Rustom Kerawalla, an educationist, called it an extremely challenging year for the education sector.

“Educational institutions closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and technology brought several ‘firsts’ for the sector. Disruptive changes in online education ensured continuity in education. Teachers incorporated technology with élan and included augmented and virtual reality as part of their framework. The coming decade will redefine education as technological advancements will further strengthen our education system,” he predicted.

FROM BUS DRIVERS TO VENDORS

Covid-19 dealt a heavy blow to those surviving on the fringes of the education sector. Kailash, who was working as a bus driver with a private school now sells warm clothes along roadside in his family Alto car. This is the state of bus drivers, conductors and attendants who lost their jobs in the school bus business. With no takers for school buses, drivers and attendants were rendered jobless.

Gurmeet Singh, a contractor with Manav Mangal school, Sector 11, called 2020 a disaster.

“Insurance of a vehicle is around Rs 50,000 and every bus driver and conductor was paid up to Rs 20,000 and a lady attendant Rs 8000. We had about 30 of them. When lockdown was announced for the first two months, I paid them from my savings thinking that schools will reopen in May but they didn’t, how could I have continued to employ them. I have been into this business for 30 years now and I was absolutely penniless this year,” Gurmeet Singh rued.

He added, “One of our most able bus drivers is working as a helper with a welder while one is selling vegetables. They are just trying to make ends meet.”

Bus contractors said that even the yearly insurance of school buses has lapsed and they don’t have funds to renew it. “The insurance was due in June but even that has ended. We don’t know if we will be able to run our buses in 2021 also,” Gurmeet said.

That is one question that is preying on everyone in this sector.

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