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The hidden cost of COVID-19 to the 2020 Year 12 cohort

27 March 2020
Ensuring the mental health of students
In this opinion piece, Associate Professor Jennifer Rowley, believes the current pandemic will add to the vulnerability of Year 12 students.

After the bushfires, smoke haze and drought, the 2020 cohort of Year 12’s anticipated a year of “lasts” and celebrations looming as a bright spot on the calendar amongst the hard work and study. Then coronavirus happened.

It’s the last year of school and milestones such as school leadership positions, sporting events and music/drama productions are anticipated. The list is long, however the current reality has ensured these events are fading as the days go by.

With the cancellation of school based events such as sport, arts activities, co-curricular tours and so on, there is an added fear of the unknown for our Year 12 students, and the true cost is yet to be seen.

The vulnerability of adolescence is already a cocktail of unknowns. Add the disappointment of not being able to realise much-looked forward to milestones and I believe we will see an impact on their mental health. Are we prepared for this?

Study and stress issues are identified as important by a third of responses in the annual Mission Australia Youth Survey. So, what’s left for these 77,000 young adults undertaking Year 12 in NSW? Nothing but the hard yakka associated with studying and preparing for assessments inside an exacerbated environment of increased anxiety and stress.

With schools across the globe looking at how to mitigate the threat posed by COVID-19, so many voices are providing scenarios under the guise of answers to some big questions students are asking about the commitment to ensuring business-as-usual and HSC preparation.

In Michael Carr-Gregg’s recent publication How to Survive Year 12 there are key strategies both parents and students can employ to ease anxiety and stress. It will come as no surprise that a global pandemic is not included on that list. The simplified advice is to ensure students are fed, hydrated, rested, exercised and get the required hours of sleep. Already we are seeing rest being eroded due to panic, constantly changing messages and at times misleading information.

There needs to be a strong and consistent voice providing specific information to our Year 12 cohort about whether they will be compensated for any self-imposed or government directed isolation from school. This must come from NESA and should come sooner rather than later.

Already students are preparing to apply for various universities and programs. With the current situation, there will be gaps that just can’t be filled. Strategies for managing these obvious omissions must be forthcoming and a response needs to be made to ease anxiety around the impact of these cancellations.

There is fear of the unknown with potential school closures and what that means for continuity of HSC learning and planned assessments, not to mention the actual HSC itself. Whilst schools have been keeping the students and parent community updated we have heard nothing from NESA about their plan regarding special consideration or realignment of HSC examinations and assessments. Already Year 12’s are faced with online teaching and learning contexts that staff have had to manage with minimum notice. Suffice to say, little or no training has been provided to either teachers or students within this new framework of learning.

People have a herd instinct for danger; uncertainty breeds panic. Clearly shared communication needs to be actioned and NESA needs to lead and reinforce vital messages about the shared responsibility of a public health crisis, and to promote calm amongst our Year 12’s.

We need to be aware how impactful missing out on this last year of school can be on our students and be prepared to ensure aspects of celebration and ‘lasts’ can still occur. Between the absence of socialising, relaxing with peers and the current cessation of sport and school community gatherings, Year 12 has become a single activity with little or no pause for enjoyment or rest.

So, whilst Year 12 already lends itself to a state of high anxiety the small tokens of relief to a highly invested year with the blessings of being a senior are swiftly being eroded from their everyday. The intensity of the context we are all living in and through at the moment means we must prepare for increased cases of mental health issues in our community and especially amongst our Year 12’s.

Jennifer Rowley is Associate Professor in Music Education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

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