A campaign has begun demanding postponement of the medical and engineering entrance exams – NEET and JEE – slated for September, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge. However, there is no knowing how long this situation will continue; recall the Spanish flu took two years to abate. Keeping qualifying examinations in abeyance isn’t in the interest of nearly 2.5 million enrolled candidates.

The National Testing Agency, which conducts both exams, has announced social distancing measures such as more testing centres, fewer students per room, more shifts for the JEE (main) computer test, and staggered entry and arrival.  NEET and JEE are the culmination of two years of intense study by higher secondary pass outs. Interminable delays blunt their preparedness. Moreover, note the wholly voluntary nature of the exercise – one can skip a round of exams to take the next one if one wishes, which is much harder to do for, say, board exams. It’s also common for a candidate to repeat an exam, perhaps to get admission to more preferred streams.

Despite all this Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, and several others have joined a populist chorus demanding postponement. Union education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal must not buckle before the protesters, as that would enable a vocal minority to override the interests of the silent majority that wants to enrol in college soon. Further delay would be self-defeating as herd immunity could be a long time away. By then the next batch would be ready to sit for these examinations, creating an untenable situation. Minimising tech glitches in generating online admit cards etc – as had happened in other recent exams – is important, lest they cause more stress and chaos on exam day.

Onus also rests on the Centre and states to restore transport services so that students can travel without difficulty to venues. Railways services and bus transport remain greatly restricted. Metro and local trains are yet to restart. By now it is accepted that well ventilated rooms – a common enough feature of college and school classrooms – and wearing masks greatly retard Covid spread. Authorities must amplify the reassuring messaging to students and parents that safe conduct of the exams is in their interest, especially with politicians and even an international teen activist joining the cancel bandwagon. China’s gaokao and Germany’s abitur entrance tests were conducted overcoming Covid fears. India must not dither either.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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