For secondary school students across Australia, Year 12 should be a time of focused study and education but also a time of celebration and memory-making. However, the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruptive force across the globe has led to the cancellation of practical classes and assessments, graduation ceremonies, formals (school balls) and other Year 12 ‘rites of passage’.
The COVID-19 pandemic period has been a stressful time for all, but in particular has affected the 180,000 Year 12 students across Australia who are now facing their post-school futures with increased anxieties and concerns. While most schools have now returned to face-to-face teaching, students meant to be graduating at the end of 2020 may still be grappling with being behind in coursework due to remote learning, exam uncertainties and other related concerns. Schools will likely have to recognise the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Year 12 students’ learning experiences in particular and prepare to support these students.
Much of the anxiety that Year 12 students have felt throughout this year has been focused on how the pandemic may affect their final exams. In New South Wales, the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) has assured students that the HSC will be going ahead, with similar announcements being made about SACE in South Australia. The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority followed suit last month by announcing, after a long period of uncertainty for Victorian students, that exams would be taking place in November.
While many state and territory regulatory bodies have assured students that they will be able to sit their exams and get an ATAR for university entrance applications, we suspect that many Year 12 students remain concerned about how these exams may be administered. Given that, at this point, around half of a Year 12’s student’s course for 2020 has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the altered methods of learning may need to be taken into account by regulatory bodies when creating examinations and assessments. As Phillip Roberts writes in The Conversation, it may be necessary for exams to cover less content than they would have in other years or to be assessed slightly differently in order to account for the period of online learning. Some practical or performance-based components of some courses in, for example, New South Wales have either been removed from the course or will be marked differently. This raises issues of disappointment and, in some cases, ensuring impartiality and moderation of results.
While these decisions may not be in the hands of the school, schools should be alert to any announcements made by their local regulatory bodies about exams for Year 12 students and communicate this information to students efficiently and clearly. Given that schools may also be subject to being closed with little notice if there is risk of infection, communication will be key to helping Year 12 students adjust to changing circumstances.
The Remote Learning Gap
As has been widely reported, remote learning is prone to worsen a ‘digital divide’ among students depending on their varying access to high-speed internet, computers and other learning resources. While many schools have now been able to return to teaching in the classroom, the disadvantages that particular students may have faced during the remote learning period may continue to impact them negatively in the classroom. In particular, students living in regional or rural areas who may have been unable to easily access the internet, or students who could not afford online learning tools will have missed out on a period of learning that their peers were able to access. Given the high stakes of Year 12 assessments for many students, these disadvantages may need to be addressed by the school; this would likely involve identifying if students were more behind in coursework than others as a result of remote learning and required extra support. In Western Australia for example, schools can apply for special provisions for students where their external assessment has been affected by illness, impairment or personal circumstances. Schools need to ascertain if the student’s circumstances meet the established criteria and then develop and implement suitable and approved support services.
Additionally, it may also be necessary to consider that students who partake in subjects with more practical elements such as art or technology would have faced greater difficulty learning online than students taking other subjects. Schools could provide support to these students with altered internal deadlines and other changes and effectively communicate information about their assessments to them.
It is clear that, even for students for whom remote learning or isolation is not a practically pressing matter, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon their mental health may be a serious issue that requires addressing. For many students, being kept from school has affected a sense of camaraderie and deprived them of essential social interactions. For many Year 12 students in particular, anxiety about the future and post school study or employment will be at a high level. Moreover, many have been prevented from partaking in activities that may supplement their experience of school life such as sports or cultural or other extra-curricular activities.
While schools are likely already burdened by the pressures of moving teaching online and offline at a moment’s notice, a higher number and broader range of students may require mental health support from the school. Earlier this month School Governance published an article on recognising the risk of mental health issues that young people may face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While schools may not be able to provide full mental health support, the article provides lists of stressors and symptoms so that staff may easily identify affected students and refer them to support, whether that is internally or externally provided.
The Year 12 students of 2020 face a historically unprecedented challenge, so it appears as no surprise that many of them may struggle through this rapidly changing period of time. These students and the wider school community will depend upon the school to guide them through these uncertain times. By recognising the range of issues that Year 12 students are currently facing, schools may be better poised to alleviate some of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact upon these students in their final year of school.