Every morning, teacher Vikas Kumar texts video lessons to his students before going to his second job as an untrained, frontline coronavirus worker.
The 27-year-old normally teaches physical education but, like thousands of other government teachers in New Delhi, he was deployed to the pandemic frontline when the virus started spreading in India last March.
Since June, Kumar has filled a number of roles alongside his teaching duties. First, he said he distributed ration kits to the poor, then he was assigned to conduct door-to-door surveys of neighbors of confirmed Covid cases. In that role, which involved taking residents’ temperatures, Kumar says he contracted the virus and was ill in July for 17 days.
In 2020, at least 28,000 teachers were deployed to Covid-19 roles, according to two teachers’ associations in New Delhi. At least 35 teachers have died from Covid-19 during the pandemic, and hundreds more fell ill, they said. CNN reached out to the Delhi Ministry of Health to verify these numbers and received no response.
Several teachers in the Indian capital told CNN they were given no training and are juggling their coronavirus duties with their normal teaching roles. Those working for the municipal corporations, which are the local-level governing civic bodies in Delhi, say they haven’t been given enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to shield them from the virus. Others say they haven’t been paid their normal salaries for months.
“The central government is telling the nation to take health and safety precautions but here, the Delhi Municipal Corporations (DMCs) are telling us to expose ourselves to the virus every day,” said Vibha Singh, the senior vice president of Nagar Nigam Shikshak Sangh (NNSS), a union representing about 20,000 teachers in DMC schools.
Teachers who do not report for their assignments can be threatened with action under the Delhi Disaster Management Act, according to Sant Ram, an elected member of the Government School Teachers’ Association (GSTA). The first orders under the act were made in March as coronavirus spread throughout the country.
Since then, more than 10,000 people have died in New Delhi, of more than 150,000 deaths nationwide. India is second only to the United States with more than 10.4 million confirmed cases, according to the global tally by John Hopkins University.
When the virus started spreading through India in March, the central government ordered a nationwide shutdown that forced schools to shut. In major metropolises, including New Delhi, they have remained closed since.
Teaching moved online and state and local authorities in the capital started assigning teachers to alternative duties to help execute the government’s efforts to combat the virus.
When some schools were turned into hunger relief centers, Alka Sharma, Additional Commissioner of East DMC, an administrative official for the district, says engaging teachers in the work “made sense.”
However, since then teachers have been enlisted to do a wider variety of pandemic duties. Some were tasked with issuing fines to the public for disobeying the mask mandate, facilitating the screening of incoming passengers at Delhi international airport and conducting door-to-door surveys to help identify Covid-19 cases.
A lot of these duties were short-term projects but many teachers, including Kumar, were moved from one assignment to another.
Kumar said after spending 10 days distributing ration kits he was assigned to a dispensary where he was asked to knock on the doors of 50 houses surrounding confirmed Covid cases.
He said he took the names, ages, travel history, comorbidities, and any coronavirus symptoms of people in each household. While he was provided with a mask, sanitizer, and a head cover, he said he wasn’t given any training.
“If we had received training, it would have been better. We were given these oximeters and non-contact thermometers, but not everyone knows how to use them,” Kumar said. “We need training for how far we should stand, how to maintain people’s safety and our own.”
“We should be told how to ask (the survey) questions better. It’s very hard to deal with the public and their reactions. So, training could make it easier and improve our work,” he added.
Delhi Directorate’s Director of Education Udit Prakash Rai and the Directors of Education from all three DMC school zones – East, North and South – did not respond to requests for comment on allegations that teachers weren’t given enough training or PPE.
Sharma, the Additional Commissioner of East DMC, says teachers can request an exemption from Covid duties and applications are considered on a case by case basis.
Months of no pay
Sarita Yadav, 38, a primary school teacher in North DMC, said she was assigned to distribute food and ration kits in May and June, but was given no training or PPE.
“I bought everything out of my own pocket. I wasn’t given masks, no sanitizers,” she said. “I purchased sanitizer, gloves, masks.”
Yadav said she and her colleagues in North DMC haven’t been paid since August. Singh of NNSS said non-payment was an issue for teachers across the northern municipal area.
“Our family’s circumstances are really bad,” Yadav said, adding that festivals were difficult. “Diwali is a big festival and everyone wants to buy new clothes. We told our kids we’re not going out or shopping because of the pandemic.”
“The children wanted to do something nice for Christmas. We coax them but we have no answers for them. It’s so bad that now I’m worried I won’t be able to pay their school fees.”
The lack of pay extends to teachers in East DMC, according to Singh, from NNSS teachers’ union, who is also the principal of a school in East DMC. She said teachers there have not received their salaries since September.
Sharma, the Additional Commissioner of East DMC, said the municipal corporation doesn’t have enough money to pay the district’s teachers.
“Our priority is (to pay) Covid workers, but we don’t have the funds right now,” she said. “If we have money in our coffers, then everyone gets the salary.”
Sharma did not indicate when she expects funds to be available again.
CNN has seen copies of several letters that NNSS and GSTA have sent to local and state authorities seeking better treatment for teachers on Covid duty and exemptions for older teachers.
Similar letters from the NNSS demand better support for DMC teachers to execute their Covid duties, including PPE kits, regular testing and compensation for the families of teachers who contract the virus and die.
The teachers’ associations say they haven’t received a satisfactory reply. CNN asked the Director of Education for the North DMC about claims that teachers weren’t being paid and didn’t receive a response.
In June, another teachers’ union in North DMC schools took teachers’ complaints over no pay to the Delhi High Court.
Teachers’ union Akhil Dilli Prathmik Shikshak Sangh (ADPSS), which represents 20,000 primary school teachers across all the DMCs, filed a petition alleging its members hadn’t been paid since March.
In its ruling, the court said teachers on pandemic duties were “corona warriors,” the name the Indian government gives to workers helping to fight the pandemic.
“Teachers belong to one of the noble professions and, as they are made to do Covid-19 duty also, they can be equated to Covid-19 warriors,” the judges said.
The court ordered the North DMC to pay the salaries owed to teachers, but the teachers and their unions say they haven’t received any payments since July.
The court also ruled that if any teacher died as a corona warrior on duty, the family should receive compensation of Rs. 1 crore or about $135,000. But several families are still waiting for their compensation, according to teachers’ unions.
Several teachers told CNN they appreciated the Delhi Court ruling, but said there was little recognition of what a corona warrior has to sacrifice to keep others safe.
They say teachers are working long hours, and months of unpaid salaries and inadequate PPE is making a difficult job even more challenging.
“Nobody takes it seriously. If they did, then at least they would pay our salary,” said Yadav, the teacher. “What is the point of a job and a salary, when we don’t have it in time of need?
“We have stopped buying fruits now, in order to bring down our expenditure. Our savings have completely depleted. We used to save Rs. 10,000-20,000 a month ($136 to $270) but now we’re at nil.”
Teachers are not entitled to paid leave if they experience symptoms. The NNSS wrote a letter to DMC officials in June accusing the department of playing a “double game.”
“When anyone working at a DMC office expresses suspicion of having Covid-19 symptoms, the whole office is sealed. The officials also go into home quarantine regardless of whether they came in contact with the individual with the possible infection,” the letter states, adding that the same procedure is not followed for school staff.
Instead, if a teacher expresses concern over possible Covid-19 symptoms and wants to isolate but has no test results, the person is threatened with action against them, the letter claims.
“Why is there a double standard for principals, teachers and school staff?” the letter asks.
Impact on students
With schools shut and teachers spending long hours on pandemic duties, teachers’ unions say children’s education is suffering.
Government schools cater to poor and low-income households where enrolled students are often first-generation learners and may not have support from their families to make up for lost time with teachers.
Teachers say they are behind on the curriculum as the final exams fast approach in March, the most critical time of the academic year for senior students.
“If teachers are going on these duties, who is teaching?” asked GSTA’s Ram.
The government has “put the future of these kids at stake,” said Singh of NNSS. “They don’t have help from their parents, who don’t always know how to read or write themselves. If they are separated from teachers, what will they do?”
Before the pandemic, Yadav, the primary school teacher, said she repeated her lessons multiple times for kids to understand. With her time stretched between the pandemic duties and schooling, combined with the lack of equal access to technology among her students, it became even harder, she said.
“They don’t have internet, they don’t have smart phones. We can’t give them worksheets. We ask them to call us if they have any issues. But they can’t understand all the time,” she said.
Since mid-November, Kumar has been back on duty, knocking on doors again, which is how he says he got the virus last year. This time, he is among the teachers helping the Delhi government to survey containment zones and hotspots to identify symptomatic people and their contacts and ensure they get tested. Again, he says he received no training.
Each day, when Kumar finishes his pandemic duty, he holds online video calls with his students.
Meanwhile, Yadav still awaits her salary.
“I just want them to pay our salary, even if it is two months of salary,” she said.
The longer the pandemic drags on, the greater the cost to teachers – and their students, said Ram of GSTA.
“We’ve gotten complaints. We have seen teachers die,” he said. “There is so much mental pressure on teachers.”