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February 5, 2023

Byron High Year 12 students speak of studying for exams in COVID-19 times

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From left: Rowan Fairbairn, Chiara Wenban, Drayko Medlyn and Mia Thom. Photo supplied

One group for whom 2020 has presented extraordinary challenges is the current crop of Year 12 students, who are about to sit their HSC examinations.

They have experienced not only social isolation and learning disruptions, but are now facing the prospect of continued travel restrictions for their ‘gap’ years, limited employment opportunities and university price hikes that may impact career choices.

Leaving high school is a significant rite of passage, usually celebrated with hallowed graduation ceremonies and lavish formals.

Those traditions have necessarily been cut back this year and students would be excused for feeling hollow rather than hallowed.

We asked four students from Byron Bay High School how they felt about the year that was, and also ask for any advice they may have for each other and the world at large.

Rowan Fairbairn

‘Going into Year 12, I couldn’t predict that this year would be any different to any other year that a Year 12 student would face, so I thought any feelings I am feeling now are normal and have been felt before.

‘During lockdown, I felt like, this is a challenge, sure, but at the same time, it’s not impossible or anything. Our teachers are going out of their way to provide all this structured work for us to do out of class, so I knew that they were looking out for us. Work was challenging but there was enjoyment in adapting to the new situation.

‘Me and my friends supported each other by basically not going radio silent. We remained online so people could contact you easily. An example of that was being on voice calls for a long period of the day while you work. Once I was on a five hour long call. It felt like we were never truly alone. My family also supported me by keeping everything the same at home, so subconsciously it felt like everything was normal. This meant I was able to relax and keep on with my work.

‘My advice for the government would be to please improve the internet for Australia. If it’s the only thing holding us together communication wise it’s got to be pitch perfect’.

Chiara Wenban

‘Pre-COVID-19 I felt very confident about what I had to do and felt safe in the knowledge of the structures that were in place to help me achieve my best.

‘I think I felt confident because there was only ten months left before I could go out into the world and I had plans, places to go, things to do. Having that to look forward to really motivated me.

‘When COVID-19 hit, I saw everyone around me become so limited in the scope of what they could do, and it made me question, on a much broader scale, what gave me purpose in my life, and what I really cared about.

‘Now I feel uncertain about my plans for the future. I don’t feel ready to commit to anything yet, because everything is so up in the air.

‘Nevertheless, I feel among students there has been a lot of support. Mental health has been crazy. I have a lot of friends who have been really struggling, and so it’s dependent on everyone to make sure they are checking in on people. It’s important that we’re there for each other and realise that everyone has been struggling.

‘What I’ve learnt this year is that everything shifts, and to take opportunities when they come. Be open to new things and try and support each other’.

Drayko Medlyn

‘Me and my family never watch the news, but there came this certain tipping point when COVID-19 became a “real” thing.

‘For example, when the US brought in travel bans, when it became a part of the legislature. Then we followed the news closely for about two weeks and it was like “Is this dystopian? Is this the end of the world?”

‘And for some reason my mum said, “Ok that’s done”, and she deleted Facebook and turned off the news and then COVID-19 disappeared, for a bit.

‘At first I enjoyed the freedom of lockdown, but I remember at some point after about two or three weeks, the loneliness set in.

‘As an extroverted person I was used to going out and talking to strangers because that’s a hobby of mine, and I couldn’t do that. It was just me and my mum. Sure I could connect with my friends online and through Zoom, but I could feel I was missing authentic connections.

‘I hadn’t made someone laugh in real life in two weeks and that really hurt me.

‘Having no public libraries open was very hard, because I like to catch a bus to Mullum library and when I realised I couldn’t, it was a bit of a shock.

‘At least my teachers were all making wonderful well structured lessons, checking in with Zoom meetings and keeping the content train running.

‘Advice for others is hard to give, since I know very little. But one thing that has been very easing for me is knowing that things like this have happened before. For example, the Black Plague. If it has happened before, and the world has recovered, I feel that we are smarter now and better at dealing with things like this and life will go on’.

Mia Thom

‘Before COVID-19 unfolded, I felt pretty optimistic about Year 12. I had a clear idea of where I wanted to head post school and I was familiar with what lay ahead. 

‘When COVID-19 came, I neglected school for a while because it consumed my psyche, but as I realised the longevity of it all, and the unlikelihood of us ever returning to ‘normal’, I pulled back a little. I think COVID-19 has highlighted a lot of the inequalities, corruption and faults in our system, which can be a good thing in terms of reconfiguring.

‘During lockdown, I was really impressed with how supportive the school community was, and how they rallied behind the Year 12s.

‘It was such a hard transition, but everyone adapted so well. I think school mentors played a huge role in maintaining a connection with school.

‘I remember our English Zoom sessions, and how beautiful they were, seeing everyone in their gardens. It felt like we all grew closer because we were all going through this collective trauma, and we had no choice but to unite and mobilise together.

‘I would encourage people to listen to the younger generation and to legitimise their voice in terms of the environment, for example, and education.

‘There’s this fear, because there are so many different issues like crippling climate anxiety combined with the pandemic and police brutality, but you have to let it keep fuelling you to keep challenging the system. I have so much hope in our generation’.

♦ Article prepared by Matcham Caine and Sarah McGregor from Byron Bay High School.

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