As uncertainty looms over Class 12 board examinations – yet to be conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education – several states like Delhi and Punjab have asked the Centre to hold the high-stake examination only if all students and teachers can be vaccinated.
- But do we have vaccines that can be administered to those below 18?
- Will the gap between vaccines further delay board exams?
- Are there enough vaccines in the first place?
Before we discuss each of these questions in detail, let’s first look at what Delhi and Punjab have said on the subject of vaccinating students.
What are state governments demanding ?
In a letter addressed to Union Minister of Education Dr Ramesh Pokhriyal, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister had on 25 May said that if experts advise against administering Covishield or Covaxin to students below 18, the Centre should hold talks with Pfizer, whose vaccine can be given to those above 12.
“If the government feels it’s not feasible to vaccinate students at present then I strongly advocate that the exams should be cancelled and results should be tabulated as per scores obtained in last three years by students – Class 10, 11 and 12.”Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister, Delhi.
Echoing Sisodia, Punjab education minister Vijay Inder Singla has asked the Education Ministry to vaccinate students and teachers “before taking a decision on examinations of Class 12 students.”
Former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav, too, tweeted saying “No Examination Without Vaccination.”
Can vaccines be administered to those below 18 in India ?
- In India, both Covishield and Covaxin have only been authorised for those above 18 years of age. According to news agency IANS, although the Drug Controller General of India had approved Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin for those below 18 years, it was later “not recommended” by the government for the said age group.
- The drug regulator, however, has allowed both Covaxin and Covishield to carry out trials in those aged between 2 to 18, involving 525 participants across hospitals in India, reported Hindustan Times.
However, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia has said that since 95 percent students in Class 12 are above seventeen-and-a-half years of age they “should be vaccinated on priority basis” following advice from experts.
According to Dr Swapneil Parikh, author of The Coronavirus – What You Need to Know About the Global Pandemic, since results of empirical studies on the impact of these vaccines in the sub 18 age group are not out yet, one cannot simply say if they can be vaccinated.
“The vaccines available in India have not been trialled for this purpose and it is unlikely that the trials will be completed in time for this,” he says.
However, Dr Anant Bhan, Adjunct Professor & Researcher in Bioethics at Mangaluru’s Yenepoya University, feels that the cut-off is more linked to the age of consent than to efficacy of the vaccine for those immediately below 18.
“Anyone under 18 will need the consent of parents for participating in a study. However, there’s no magical difference between those aged 17 and 18, in terms of their health.”Anant Bhan, Adjunct Professor & Researcher in Bioethics at Mangaluru’s Yenepoya University.
If approved, will only vaccinated students get to write board exams ?
Bhan points out that if indeed vaccines are authorised solely for those writing board examinations, it could lead to two bottlenecks:
- If vaccination becomes a qualifying criteria for writing exams, then it may become exclusionary and prevent those who have been unable to get the jab from writing exams. “Can you force people to get vaccinated to write exams?” he asks.
- Making an exception for those under 18, but writing board papers could mean prioritising their health needs over children who are immunocompromised, have chronic illnesses or have a severe mental disorder – all of which make them much more vulnerable.
Will vaccinating students delay board results ?
Even if students are vaccinated, they will have to take both the doses to receive protection from the virus that the jab is designed to offer. While the government has said that the second dose of Covaxin can be administered four weeks after the first one, the interval between two doses of Covishield has increased to 12 to 16 weeks.
However, immunity from vaccine kicks only after a couple of weeks. This means that if students are administered Covaxin, they should be able to build a strong immune response within one-and-a half months.
The problem, however, lies in the unequal production and distribution of both these vaccines in India.
The CoWIN dashboard shows that while some 17.76 crore doses of Covishield have been administered, only 2.15 crore doses of Covaxin have been administered so far.
Based on vaccine availability, if students are more likely to receive Covishield, say in the month of June, they will only develop immunity well after the second dose in October.
This also means that board exams, if conducted on the principle of prior vaccination, can only be held somewhere between late October and late November. If exams end in November, it will take at least a month to declareresults, which will only be possible in December.
Interestingly in 2020, results for CBSE Class 12 were declared on 13 July, after the board scrapped exams that could not be conducted due to the pandemic and marked students for remaining papers on the basis of those that had already been written.
In order to get more clarity on how this may or may not work, The Quint had reached out to multiple CBSE officials. While one did not comment on the matter, the other did not respond to multiple calls.
Does India have enough vaccines?
On 25 May, the Delhi government announced that it had shut all 400 government COVID-19 vaccination centres for the 14-44 age group and Covaxin vaccination centres for health and frontline workers above 45, owing to a shortage of vaccines.
Facing a vaccine shortage, states like Maharashtra, UP, Punjab and others have floated their own global tenders.
According to Financial Express “Less than three months to its July 2021 deadline and India has only reached 25 percent of its target. Due to the shortage in the vaccine, inoculation dropped from 35 lakh each day in the first week of April to 21 lakh in the last week of April. In May the daily average dropped further to 16 lakh doses being administered per day.”
According to Sisodia, there are about 1.4 crore students who are slated to appear for CBSE Class 12 exams this year. However, vaccinating them alone would not be enough points out Bhan.
“Apart from students, then entire ecosystem around them has to be vaccinated which includes invigilators and other staff.” Further, Dr Swapneil Parikh says in a situation where vaccines are scarce, the country should be prioritising those who are at high risk for severe disease.
- This means that vaccinating students for boards only would further burden India’s stretched vaccine supply.
- Dr Parikh believes that if the choice is between vaccinating students below 18 years for conducting exams or cancelling them altogether, it is better to go with non-pharmaceutical interventions like scrapping board exams and finding other ways of marking students.
Should students be vaccinated at all?
While vaccinating students below 18 just to make them take a high-stake exam may not be the most practical and sensible thing to do during a vaccine shortage, the only long-term benefit of the move could be a smooth transition to college.
Since students opt for competitive entrance exams after completing school, most of which are conducted offline, vaccinating students would offer some form of a safeguard against the virus.
“Priority vaccination of the students who are about to take the board exams will ensure that their second dose is completed by August/September and will enable them to take the various college entrance exams in a more shielded manner.”Ankit Dubey, Category Manager, Collegedunia.
But, why is CBSE not in favour of cancelling exams? Can Class 12 students be marked internally? read more on this here.