Teachers unpaid for months, mounting rent pressure, and pending fees — amidst a Covid-enforced shutdown, several low-cost private schools in the national Capital, catering to children from lower-middle-class and working-class families, are struggling to stay afloat.
Madhuri Aggarwal runs a primary school for children of migrant labourers in Pochanpur, in Southwest Delhi’s Dwarka, charging Rs 600 a month as fees for nursery students, with an incremental hike of Rs 50 for every subsequent class.
With a small student community of 300, her Winner’z Public School, she says, runs on a “no-profit-no-loss model”. “Everything we collect is diverted to the school. Around 99 per cent of our parents are labourers and do masonry and carpentry jobs. Many of the mothers work as domestic helps. Through this entire lockdown period, not a single parent has been able to pay fees. As a result, we have neither been able to pay our teachers nor our rent since April,” she says.
Unlike the more expensive private schools, low-cost schools operate with little financial cushioning, with almost all of them depending on the tuition fee they charge to run their operations. The economic distress that followed the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has left several parents struggling to pay tuition fees.
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Sushil Dhankar, who runs Hari Vidya Bhawan School in Sangam Vihar in South Delhi with classes from nursery to Class 12, says he got 4% of the fees in April, and nothing in the subsequent months.
“I paid my staff their April salaries, and for May, I gave them 50% of their pay from my personal savings. But I have not been able to pay them for June. I have promised to pay their dues once the school reopens and fees start coming in,” he says. Dhankar charges Rs 1,000 a month for primary students and Rs 2,200 for senior secondary students.
School owners say they are unsure if they can count on things to get better with time.
“I have called up around a hundred parents in the last three days asking for fees but everyone says they have no money. I also have a rent of Rs 25,000 to pay for the school premises. The landlord has given me time till the school opens. My fear is that even after it does, parents will say they are unable to pay the pending fees. Hum nahi chala payenge… hum bhi middle class ke hi hain (We won’t be able to run the school. We are, after all, from the middle class),” said the owner of a primary school in South Delhi’s Prahladpur that charges Rs 650 per student.
While most of these budget schools are too strapped for funds to conduct virtual classes, some like Bal Vaishali Public School in Badarpur have tried to maintain a semblance of routine. For its owner Ashok Sharma, the online classes have confirmed his worst fears: of students dropping out.
“Only 20% of our 800 students have been attending our online classes — many skipped because of connectivity issues and we haven’t been able to contact the others. We are not sure how many of them will remain with the school,” he says.
Talking about an “alarming experience” he had recently, Sharma says, “A father whose three children study in my school told me he would not send them to school for the rest of the year because of his economic situation. He requested me to keep all of them in the school’s records so that they can rejoin in their current classes next year. I had nothing to tell him. I realised pressuring parents to pay is no solution. I’ve already cut my teaching staff from 23 to 14 to cut costs.”
Aggarwal, who runs the primary school in Dwarka, too, fears dropouts. “We do our best to secure the future of our children. We get some of them enrolled in private schools through the EWS quota after they complete Class 5 with us, and we get the others admitted to government schools. We were quick to try and adapt to remote learning, and I’m lucky to have motivated teachers who are working hard on this. We have to sustain ourselves somehow, because we do not want our students to drop out if we cannot,” she says.
Supriya Sushanti teaches in the primary section of Hari Vidya Bhavan and her daughter is enrolled in the same school in Class 1. With her salary pending, Sushanti hasn’t been able to pay her daughter’s fees. “I haven’t been getting my salary and and my husband lost his job at a mall. We have asked the landlord to excuse us from paying rent for the time being. Since I have not been paid my salary for a few months, I told the owner of the school where I teach that I cannot pay my daughter’s fees. The owner said he would pay my dues when the school reopens. Let’s see what happens,” she says.
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