The senior graduating class of 2020 has had a stressful year. It began with bushfires, which devastated large swathes of Australia’s east coast. Then the pandemic hit and students were required to stay at home and attend class remotely – some for just a few weeks at the start of term two, and others, like students in Melbourne, for half the year.
Schools in Melbourne that were the centre of coronavirus outbreaks were demonised in the media as being potentially responsible for a third wave. Graduation ceremonies and school formals will be limited, sit-down affairs, with no family allowed.
And then, with the knowledge that students would be graduating into a recession, the federal government doubled the cost of humanities degrees (while reducing it for some other courses).
Guardian Australia spoke to nine year 12 students from around Australia to get their thoughts on a challenging year. Despite the setbacks, many remain optimistic.
Amina Taha, 17, Melbourne
Few schools have received as much media attention as the East Preston Islamic College, which last week found itself in the middle of Covid-19 outbreak that threatened to put Melbourne’s reopening on hold.
Just a few days after students were allowed to return to the classroom a grade 5 boy tested positive, sending the whole campus back into lockdown right before VCE exams. Amina Taha, a year 12 student at the school, says she broke down in tears when she heard the news.
“I was on the bus planning to submit one of my final assessments the next day,” she says. “I got an email from the school saying ‘school closure’, and I just started crying because I was so overwhelmed.
“We were meant to graduate this week.”
Taha is doing a Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning, which is similar to VCE, but is more focused on assignments and course work than exams. She found these tasks extremely hard to complete while working from home.
“I have had no room,” she says. “My mum recently had a baby when we were doing at-home learning, so it’s been a bit hard. Juggling that, trying to focus properly and staying motivated.
“It’s sad, I do feel like I’ve missed out. The whole class of 2020 across the world has. We are just over it.”
The school had to lockdown for two weeks, but Taha says she is still hopeful it will open in time to celebrate graduating with her classmates.
Tiahn Barnard, 17, Keeley Morrison, 18, and Lily McPherson, 18, Beechworth
The Beechworth Secondary College students are counting down the days until their first exam. The Victorian English exam has been pushed back to 10 November, and their last exam is on 1 December.
Beechworth spent the summer under a cloud of bushfire smoke. They had a brief period of normality before the first coronavirus lockdown and then did two periods of schooling from home – eight weeks in term two and another eight in term three. Internet and phone reception around Beechworth can be patchy. Some of their classmates missed classes because the internet was unreliable, and class discussions became less inclusive because some were intimidated about speaking up over Webex.
Morrison, 18, says the increase in fees for humanities degrees was another blow. “That puts me in a bit of a bad place financially for the rest of – well not for the rest of my life but for a few years,” she says. “It’s pretty scary.”
Morrison is school captain, and McPherson, also 18, is head of the student representative council. Both have been conducting meetings and trying to organise social gatherings – such as quiz nights and a virtual basketball competition – over video chat. Their graduation and end of year formal have been pared back to just students and teachers. It’s hard not to feel a bit cheated, they say.
McPherson has been accepted for early entry into a double degree of science and business at the Australian National University, which has accepted students based on a predicted Atar from their year 11 results. “That was something that I probably wouldn’t have applied for if Covid hadn’t happened and their entry requirements hadn’t been changed,” she says.
Outside school, Barnard, 17, had hoped to spend the year qualifying for state and national showjumping and eventing championships but events were postponed because of Covid and are starting up again now. “Most of them fall within exams so I am not able to go to them.”
The ticking clock for international sporting success in equestrian beats more slowly than other disciplines – the oldest Olympian at Rio in 2016 was a 62-year-old dressage rider.
“So, luckily for me, Covid hasn’t really affected any prime time of my physical development or anything,” she says. “[But] I am having to reconsider my horses and my training to reach that goal of competing internationally.”
Seren Moulds, 17, Perth
Kelmscott Senior High School student Seren Moulds spent longer in isolation than most Western Australians. The 17-year-old lives in public housing in Perth’s south-eastern suburbs with his mother, who has an autoimmune disease, and they went into self-quarantine to protect her health.
That meant more time learning from home, and Moulds developed a system.
“The teachers would upload the work on Google Classroom, and then say ‘get it in by this time, if you have any questions, email me’,” he says. “And I would normally get all of my work done for a given day in an hour or two.”
He spent the rest of his school days on a myriad of projects: teaching himself philosophy, political theory and economics in preparation for doing his bachelor of politics, philosophy and economics next year, repainting the hallway and building a fire pit. He has also been introduced through his volunteer work with a local Labor MP to the Western Australian premier. “This Saturday, I’m shooting an ad with Mark McGowan,” he says. “I’ve met him like twice so far.”
Moulds was granted early entry to the University of Western Australia, on an offer to pandemic-year students to calculate their predicted Atar based off their year 11 scores.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” he says. “There are all these tiny pressures that we put on ourselves to do well but when we have a guaranteed option after high school, it’s such a relief to not have to constantly worry.”
Hannah De Bruin, 18, Brisbane
A few weeks into lockdown, the Moreton Bay College student felt her motivation start to slide.
The exclusive private girls’ school delivered online classes in the form of Zoom calls that lasted the entire length of the period. Students were even required to wear their uniforms – although sports uniforms were permitted.
Even the student leadership meetings stuck to their pre-pandemic schedule, which meant another 30 minutes on Zoom during the lunch break.
“I found it very hard to stay motivated during that time, because I like being around people and interacting with people, that’s how I learn best,” she says.
The 18-year-old says she had moments of feeling disappointed. “At first I was definitely like, ‘oh gosh this is not the senior year we imagined, this is going to be not a great year’ .... [but] once we got back to school and got to see everyone, we were like, ‘oh yeah, this is actually going to be a good year’.”
Their year 12 formal was a seated affair, conducted under Queensland’s (now lifted) strict no-dancing rule. Exams began on Monday. De Bruin is hopeful of getting into a bachelor of science at the University of Queensland.
Hazel Finney, 18, Sydney
For Finney, a student at St Scholastica’s College, a private girls’ school in Sydney’s inner west, the biggest challenge of graduating high school in 2020 was not the pandemic but the changes to university fees. “It just stressed me out to the max because although I am from, like, a comfortable background, hiking the arts fees to that extent is just ridiculous,” she says. “When I first heard it I was like, well, I can’t do that any more, I have to go into what they want me to go into.”
But what Finney loves is history. She received early admission to study political science at the Australian National University.
Frustration at the federal government has shifted her ambition from working as a policy writer to being “a proper politician”.
“Like so many young people I just feel so frustrated watching them make all these policies and watching them make all these decisions on our behalf,” she says. “But they’re not leading in the way that I would hope they would, and in the way that makes me feel like they’re actually thinking about us and thinking about our future. They’re leading for them.”
Leonardo Vergara, 18, Melbourne
One of the biggest problems with remote learning is how vastly different a student’s experience is depending on their situation at home. For Leonardo Vergara, his past few months have been all about learning to adapt and navigate VCE in a busy household.
“There are seven people in my family and my cousin is now living with us to study,” he says. “We have two dogs as well so it gets pretty loud in here.
“I share my room with my brother who also has online classes so we kind of split up, finding out which sessions I could have the room to myself and whatnot … We got into a rhythm with it.”
Vergara’s family moved to Australia from the Philippines eight years ago, and he will be the third sibling to graduate from Alkira Secondary College in Cranbourne North.
“My mum and dad have tried really hard, but all the older kids are learning online so the internet does get a bit buggy … but other people have it a lot worse.”
Although it’s been tough, Vergara says there has been a lot of joy in the pandemic too.
“We have had these virtual assemblies. We were instructed to submit a Tiktok of our lives in isolation, and we all sat there and watched all the videos. A lot of staff and students found it hilarious, seeing everyone have fun. It was a really joyous thing in a bad situation.”
Via Brindley, 17, Melbourne
The pandemic has created a whole host of problems but one that Via Brindley at Wesley College didn’t see coming was how it would affect social dynamics at high school.
“When you could only have 10 or 20 people outside throughout the year, that’s a big thing because you have to exclude people,” she says. “You have to pick this small group to celebrate birthdays with.
“Even at school, you would have only six people at the table and only four people at this table because of social distancing. It really enforces that idea that you have to choose people. In year 12 you are kinda over all that stuff, but it creates weird dynamics.”
Wesley, a private school in Melbourne’s inner east, was well equipped with online learning platforms and individual laptops for students. But Brindley says sitting VCE assessment tasks online has been tough.
“They make you turn your camera and microphone on … but basically, there was no way they could stop people from cheating, which was really hard to come to terms with,” she says.
Brindley needs a 95 Atar to get into a commerce degree at Melbourne University, so the stakes are high.
“I usually wouldn’t mind, but given that VCE is literally only a competition, it was quite frustrating … It’s annoying to know that you’ve put in all this hard work and then some people are just like getting the same marks as you because they’ve got notes stuck up on their walls.”