The domino effect of cancelled exams

Unprecedented times call for drastic measures. This week, India’s Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) took a crucial decision—it chopped off 30% of the syllabus for grades nine through 12.   This doesn’t come as a total surprise. Online classes can’t be as efficient as physical ones, and Indian schools have a unique talent for cramming as much content as possible into one semester. Those of us who attended school in the 90s are well acquainted with the dreaded “extra class”.   It would serve us well, though, to figure out why completing the syllabus on time is such a big deal. And why the CBSE specified that the cancelled chapters won’t be part of any assessments. Because the whole Indian education system, from start to finish, is a race to the end goal—exams. It’s really not that much, or at all, about learning.   Now, exams have a hierarchy too. In the senior grades, internal assessments by schools are far less important than the national Board Exams. Boards are gatekeepers; what marks you score decide the subjects you study, the college you get into, and in some cases, the jobs you land up with. The Gaokao in China is a handy parallel here.    That’s why in the seminal “board years”— grades 10 and 12—there is no incentive to do well in internal school assessments. In a pre-Covid world, they’re just a layer of bureaucracy to get through. But the pandemic, by cancelling board exams, has disrupted a decades-long hierarchy. And the panic is palpable.
“Rahul Gupta, a student of Mamta Modern School Vikaspuri, said, “I had fallen sick during my pre-board exams and missed some papers. I had two board papers left — Business Studies and Informatics Practices. As a student, I have been left in the lurch about my future. How will the CBSE work out a formula for those students who missed their internal assessment or pre-Boards?” Exams cancelled, students’ questions remain unanswered, Financial Express
On the flip side, now is as good a time as any to shift the goalposts from marks to learning. Schools could re-invent their own exams, fight for a share of final “board” marks or do more continuous assessment through the year. 2020 could also be the year we realise that the value of a 90% score in board exams is a relic of the pre-Covid era.   An ode to fallen chapters   It’s interesting what parts of the syllabus the Ministry of Human Resource Development decided to cut. Some are random cuts, like “Ray Optics” from grade 12. Others seem more deliberate. And opportune.   It’s a shot fired without wasting a bullet.
Source: Scroll
Vanishing into thin air   Seetharaman   The pandemic has turned 2020 into the worst year ever for airlines. Their revenues are expected to halve from last year and their losses could total $84 billion.    As carriers navigate this existential crisis, irate fliers are adding to their woes—and justifiably so. As of early April, airlines owed $35 billion in refunds for cancelled flights, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This is what Alexandra de Juniac, director general of IATA, wrote on its website three months ago. 
Passengers have the right to get their money. They paid for a service that cannot be delivered. And in normal circumstances, repayment would not be an issue. But these are not normal circumstances. If airlines refund the $35 billion immediately, that will be the end of many airlines. And with that an enormous number of jobs will also disappear.
He proposed issuing vouchers for future travel, called a credit shell, or a refund at a later day as alternatives. That is something airlines, including those in India, have done. But the surge in demand for refunds has put carriers, governments, and passengers in a bind.
If the airline goes bust and shuts down for good, the voucher likely dies with it. Passengers are stuck with billions of dollars’ worth of what are essentially loans to airlines. On the other hand, unlimited refunds could push an airline with weak cash reserves and few prospects for government aid or new borrowing or equity into insolvency. The 19 airlines making refunds a headache, The Wall Street Journal
Indian carriers have been taken to court for refusing refunds. As of early May, they had to pay $500 million in refunds, according to CAPA Centre for Aviation, a consulting and research firm.
A PIL was filed in the Supreme Court in late April against airlines’ decision to offer a credit shell instead of refunds, to passengers whose flights were cancelled because of the lockdown. Though passengers could use the credit shell over the next year, there are conditions attached to it.
Even though the government later asked airlines to refund the tickets, these were limited to bookings done during the lockdown period. Refunds could cost airlines $500 million, says CAPA India, Moneycontrol.com
Elsewhere, class-action suits have been filed against British Airways and American Airlines, which are now getting wiser.
More and more carriers are adding clauses that require passengers to settle disputes with the airline in private arbitration, rather than in court, and bar passengers from starting or joining class-action lawsuits.
In early April, American Airlines updated its contract of carriage, a standard industry document that outlines the legal responsibilities of a ticket holder and an airline, with a class-action waiver. British Airways followed in late May, adding a class-action waiver and binding arbitration agreement in the terms and conditions of Executive Club, its loyalty program, for residents of the United States and Canada. In fine print, airlines make it harder to Fight for Passenger Rights, The New York Times
Hoping for speedy refunds is increasingly as unrealistic as expecting the baby across the aisle on the flight not to cry even once during the journey.
Predicting outbreaks two weeks in advance   Rohin   One of the fascinating aspects of modern algorithm development is how you can go back to the event you’re studying, and see if you could have predicted it with your new model, had it been there earlier.   An international team of scientists has released a paper in which they present a model that could predict outbreaks two weeks before they occur.
In a paper posted on Thursday on arXiv.org, the team, led by Mauricio Santillana and Nicole Kogan of Harvard, presented an algorithm that registered danger 14 days or more before case counts begin to increase. The system uses real-time monitoring of Twitter, Google searches and mobility data from smartphones, among other data streams.
The algorithm, the researchers write, could function “as a thermostat, in a cooling or heating system, to guide intermittent activation or relaxation of public health interventions” — that is, a smoother, safer reopening.
The list of Google search phrases the team relied on is interesting. They used it to understand the different ways in which human beings search for:
“anosmia, chest pain, chest tightness, cold, cold symptoms, cold with fever, conta-gious flu, cough, cough and fever, cough fever, covid, covid nhs, covid symptoms,covid-19, covid-19 who, dry cough, feeling exhausted, feeling tired, fever, fever cough,flu and bronchitis, flu complications, how long are you contagious, how long does covid last, how to get over the flu, how to get rid of flu, how to get rid of the flu,how to reduce fever, influenza, influenza b symptoms, isolation, joints aching, loss of smell,  loss smell,  loss taste,  nose bleed,  oseltamivir,  painful cough,  pneumonia,pneumonia, pregnant and have the flu, quarantine, remedies for the flu, respiratory flu, robitussin, robitussin cf, robitussin cough, rsv, runny nose, sars-cov 2, sars-cov-2 , sore throat, stay home, strep, strep throat, symptoms of bronchitis, symptoms of flu,  symptoms of influenza,  symptoms of influenza b,  symptoms of pneumonia, symptoms of rsv, tamiflu dosage, tamiflu dose, tamiflu drug, tamiflu generic, tamiflu side effects, tamiflu suspension, tamiflu while pregnant, tamiflu wiki, tessalon”
The first rule of community transmission is…   Rohin   A new epidemiological model (which has not been peer-reviewed yet) developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management has some sobering Covid-19 statistics for the next 12 months, if the world does not get vaccines or treatments.   By Spring 2021, the 84 countries in the model might see 249 (186-586) million cases and 1.75 (1.40-3.67) million deaths. The model predicts “a very large burden of new cases in the fall of 2020, with hundreds of millions of cases concentrated in a few countries estimated to have insufficient responses given perceived risks (primarily India, but also Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the USA).” By Winter 2021, the top ten countries by projected daily infection rates were India (287,000 infections per day), USA (95.4), South Africa (20.6), Iran (17.0), Indonesia (13.2), UK (4.2), Nigeria (4.0), Turkey (4.0), France  (3.3), and Germany (3.0). The closest a country was to herd immunity (where enough people have caught and recovered from the coronavirus to stop its transmission) was Chile, whose estimated infection rate was 15.5%. The researchers assume that 80% is the herd immunity level.   Sans vaccines and treatments, the model’s authors say “future outcomes are less dependent on testing and more contingent on the willingness of communities and governments to reduce transmission.” (emphasis added)   India, currently the world’s third-most infected country, is yet to even acknowledge the existence of community transmission. This tweet yesterday from Shreya Raman, a journalist, captures India’s current state poignantly.
Dishwashers, domestic workers, and the law of inequality   Savio   Guess what is flying off the virtual shelves in India? Dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and clothes dryers. All labour-saving products that middle class and upper middle class Indians never needed since they always had domestic workers. The lockdowns changed that. The June quarter saw a surge in sales for these products, The Economic Times reports. A 500% surge in sales of dishwashers, while clothes dryer sales doubled.   It’s not just an Indian phenomenon. Even iRobot, the maker of Roomba vacuum cleaners, was caught off guard. “Our anticipated second-quarter 2020 financial performance will be substantially better than we originally expected,” its CEO said recently.   All well and good for them and the likes of LG, Bosch, etc. But as households become self-sufficient, what happens to the taken-for-granted workforce these products replace? It’s interesting to see that when the lockdowns first started, there were plenty of debates on whether to allow domestic workers to enter or not, and on whether to cut their salary if they couldn’t come to work. That seems to be changing now.   The pandemic is already well on its way to creating income inequality. Only this time, a section of the society that was largely indispensable earlier will get dragged into the net. How large? About 3.9 million, according to the government’s last count. A section of the society that does not even have the law on its side.
The National Commission for Women drafted the Domestic Workers (Registration Social Security and welfare) Act in 2008, which has not been notified by the central government. Some state governments did indeed take the lead in framing laws on this subject. In 2018, it was said the central government was working on bringing out a national policy to protect the interests of domestic workers ‘which has been pending for almost three years now’. Bill no. 92 of 2017 was introduced in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian parliament), which was titled The Domestic Workers (Regulation of Work and Social Security) Bill 2017 but going by the recent communique of the labour and employment ministry, the process of formulating a national policy is still in ‘draft stage’. Between Welfare and Criminalisation: Were Domestic Servants Always Informal?, The Wire
Maybe it will take record-breaking sales of dishwashers and vacuum cleaners for the government to pass an all-India Act to regulate domestic workers. Or maybe there is another level before we get there.
Travel bubbles are delicate   Jon   We’ve written about travel bubbles—agreements to allow travel between countries during the pandemic—which are seen as crucial to tourism, aviation, and regional business in Southeast Asia. But they are just as delicate as actual bubbles, we’re learning.   Thailand has coped with Covid-19 better than most countries and it was in talks to open a travel bubble with China, Japan, and Korea, the three countries that regularly funnel tourists to its shores and account for a significant chunk of foreign investment.    That bubble has popped, however, in response to surging Covid-19 infections in the three countries.   These relationships are complicated and multi-layered; China recently surpassed Japan as Thailand’s top source of foreign investment. There’s also a lot of significance attached to being positively represented within national travel policies, as global reaction to the UK’s list of nationals who must quarantine on arrival shows.    Yet, unswayed by the politics, Thailand has taken the cautious option to put its plans with China, Japan, and Korea on ice. 
At the same time, it is advancing talks with a B-team player, New Zealand, which won’t supply anything like the same number of tourists but has a firmer grip on the outbreak. But beyond tourism, the partnership may involve cooperation within agricultural sectors, Thailand’s industry minister said.
Time flies,… or crawls?   Savio   I’m sure you have experienced one or both over the past few months. For some, the time would have whizzed by, and for others, it would have been agonisingly slow. Either way, it’s sure our perception of time has likely been distorted even more than usual this year.
According to neuroscientists, there is not a single organ or system in the body responsible for timekeeping. In fact, psychologists have identified many factors that affect our sense of time, some of which explain our heightened awareness of it this year.
That is from a Reuters report, which has a set of perception tests that show how certain factors can distort our sense of time. Go ahead, take the test.

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