As senior students now face delayed HSC exams, changes to final-year traditions, and disruptions to long-awaited schoolies celebrations, they will need extra support from their families, peers and school staff local experts say.
And they also need to bear in mind that while it is important that they do their best in the exam, their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) score is not the only way to gain entry to a university.
Dr Helen Harper is the chair of teaching and learning in the School of Education at University of New England, she says there are many pathways people can take to university.
"One way is through achieving an ATAR score of a certain level but you can also do a Pathways Enabling course which will give you the equivalent of the ATAR you need," she said.
"You would need to do two units that contribute to the degree you want to do as well as two foundation units. For students who haven't got the ATAR they need that is a really good way to come into university."
There is also an enabling course specifically for for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, Dr Harper said, which means students are part of a community and the help is more targeted.
"And you can also enter university as a mature age student even if you don't have educational qualifications," she said.
"You make a support case saying why you think you can do the study . And if you have a Vocational Education and Training (VET) or TAFE qualification there is automatic entry to some courses."
Dr Harper said people can try a few different things, and maybe work before they decide what they want to do.
"There is life after the HSC," she said. "So take the time to consider your options."
Dr James White and UNE graduates Jane Weier, a dedicated COVID support teacher, and Anna Cooper, a student support officer, have a combined 60 years of experience in schools.
Dr White is a former NSW Education Department regional director for New England and school principal, and Jane and Anna are on the frontline, busy supporting 140 Year 12 students at Armidale Secondary College.
The trio recommends parents work closely with their school communities to maintain vital social connections, by whatever technological and physical means possible.
"The social dimension of school can easily be overlooked, but Year 12 students need these social connections more than anything to deal with the current uncertainty," said Dr White.
"All the traditions that represent the culmination of 13 years of schooling are now either being cancelled or dramatically revised. This is creating all sorts of physical and emotional stress and fatigue for students and their families."
The series of changes announced in recent months has left many Year 12s feeling lost according to Ms Wieer.
"They just want structure and certainty," she said.
"Those permitted to complete major projects on site, outside the NSW hotspots, have appreciated the time to connect and see real faces, even though they are masked faces. It's an opportunity to engage with teachers who know and understand them. They are clearly missing the physical contact that comes with school, as well as its familiar sights and sounds."
Ms Cooper suggests families take full advantage of influential teachers and support staff within their schools, including the COVID support teachers and Student Support Officers, many of whom have trained as social workers.
"This network of wellbeing champions is vital to all students, especially Year 12s and those in rural and regional areas who continue to experience greater disadvantage," she says.
"Social connectivity using mobile devices only goes so far."
The assumption that everyone has equal access to technology is also false.
"Some students cannot use the visual facility of Zoom because it slows down their internet connection, so they are not even physically seeing other students and teachers online," says Dr White.
"The welfare of these students should be a real concern for schools."
Some students from families under financial pressure are also being disadvantaged by having to use their own, limited phone data for learning Ms Weier said. While Ms Cooper has concerns for at-risk students.
"For some, school is their only safe place," she said.
"It's the only place where they have a regular routine and people checking in on them; where they get some form of acknowledgement and support. As the lockdowns drag on, we need to continue to find new and effective ways to support and engage those vulnerable students."
It is natural for Year 12 students to be feeling disappointment, frustration and anxiety that their 2021 timetables have been so drastically disrupted. However, Ms Cooper advises parents to seek professional support if any changes in behaviour, thinking or feeling persist longer than expected.
In the meantime, the brains trust has the following advice for students and parents trying to maintain good health and relationships under these trying circumstances:
- Continue to maintain regular routines, including a sensible diet, adequate sleep, exercise and (however appropriate) social contact;
- Keep the channels of communication open. Acknowledge the situation and reassure the student that what they are feeling is natural. Ask what they need and what the family can do to help. What positive lessons are they likely to be able to take away from 2021?
- Investigate what time the student can spend at school, and with other students, under NSW Department of Education policy and health regulations.
- Capitalise on relationships students have with trusted teachers and staff like Student Support Officers. "There's a saying that I used to use as a school principal - 'Before they care about what you know, they need to know that you care'," says Dr White.
- Don't under-estimate the value of physical touch and quality time in the home. Even cooking together or watching a movie can help students to de-stress.
- Make allowances for the incidental communication that happens via texting and during online gaming. "This kind of communication was happening long before lockdowns," Dr White says. "Parents may need to concede that it is a good way for students to connect in a less pressured way right now."
- Parents should also be mindful of maintaining good mental health themselves. Reaching out to friends for support is important.
Finally, Dr White advises to look for the silver lining.
"Some students have learnt things throughout the lockdowns that will change their whole attitude to what they learn and where they work in the future," he said.
"They may divert from traditional career paths, to consider jobs that give them more satisfaction. Hopefully they come out the other side with a different attitude to what's out there, and, having endured COVID and lockdowns, the ability to survive anything."
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