Queensland’s Year 12 students had to find new ways to cope during the pandemic. This is how one group did it - and uncovered moments of joy along the way.
Queensland’s Year 12 students had to find new ways to cope during the pandemic. This is how one group did it - and uncovered moments of joy along the way.

Tears, stress and hope: Class of 2020 survives hellish year

Kitted out in the navy blazer, tie and hat of her Brisbane Girls Grammar formal uniform, Year 12 student Stephanie Khan reflects on her final school year with a wry, "It was a good first five weeks".

It's been a final school year like no other and by late March COVID-19 had robbed our Year 12s of the valedictory year they had spent 13 years working towards.

"All of a sudden school was cancelled. I remember when I was reading that email I started crying. It was so sad," Stephanie, 17, says.

In shock that schools were closed, the 50,397-strong Class of 2020 went home on March 26, unsure how they would cope with online lessons, particularly given that this class is the first to be assessed under the ATAR tertiary admission ranking system, being separated from their teachers and friends and with no idea when schools would reopen.

The Class of 2020 have battled through a tumultuous final year. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
The Class of 2020 have battled through a tumultuous final year. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

Sheltered by the lush fig and jacaranda trees of New Farm Park, 16 students from the Class of 2020 have gathered to swap war stories from the valedictory year no one saw coming.

This was a year where assessment was changed, school sport was postponed and spectators banned, formals and graduation ceremonies were canned or went ahead with restrictions, bomb threats interrupted final exams for some and Schoolies was cancelled.

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The milestones enjoyed by Year 12s before them were suddenly and heartbreakingly gone. When health restrictions eased, schools rushed where possible to resurrect the rites of passage for Year 12s.

Qweekend - Class of 2020 at New Farm Park. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Qweekend - Class of 2020 at New Farm Park. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

But with social distancing, bans on dancing, and proud parents unable to watch on, school formals and the like bore little resemblance to the celebrations that had gone before.

While it's become something of a COVID cliche, the "unprecedented" situation means this will be the first cohort to graduate amid such a major upheaval to the school year. But this class is well acquainted with being the first. They were the first Year 7 students to start high school and the first Year 12s to sit external exams in nearly 50 years, and the first to receive an ATAR instead of an OP.

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The cohort has navigated the setbacks, faced with greater mental health challenges than those that went before them. However if the group in New Farm Park is anything to go by, our future doctors, police officers, researchers, teachers, builders and leaders have emerged from this crisis with grit and resilience, and a maturity beyond their years. From the sea of school colours, Jess Morgan, 17, wearing Cavendish Road State High School's deep green, sums up the legacy this year will have on the young Queenslanders' lives, saying, "If anything, COVID-19 has made us stronger".


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Education Minister Grace Grace says COVID-19 has been a challenge for all Queensland students but particularly Year 12s.

"We know it's not the year our senior students were hoping for, but I'm so proud of the patience and resilience they've shown during this difficult time," she says.

Her sentiments are backed by Independent Schools Queensland executive director David Robertson, who says that completing Year 12 is an achievement in its own right but doing it during a pandemic makes this group of graduating seniors a special cohort. Queensland Catholic Education Commission executive director Dr Lee-Anne Perry agrees that this year's Year 12s have shown themselves to be a tenacious and adaptable group.

Parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson points out that the biggest issue facing senior students has been the unpredictability, with the "volatility and randomness that students have experienced, the most unsettling thing". While the disruption to schooling was minimised compared to other states, Coulson says it was a "very real disruption" for the students experiencing it.

"The third-biggest challenge would be the fact that this has been a year of missed opportunities for many students, it's a year where that kid who was going to be the age champion in athletics or cross country, or the lead role in the musical … there were so many dreams that were meant to be fulfilled this year and the coronavirus has really bashed those dreams.

"While as adults we might look at those situations and say, 'Oh well, it's not that big of a deal', when you're 17 and your whole life is school, it really is a big deal."


The Class of 2020 tell QWeekend how they survived their final year of school amid COVID-19 chaos.
The Class of 2020 tell QWeekend how they survived their final year of school amid COVID-19 chaos.




St Edmund's College Ipswich's Benjamin Choat, 18, says, like most, he had high hopes for his senior year. But when COVID-19 hit, his optimism was dashed like that of Jess Morgan, who reflects "there was realisation and fear that things would never be the same again".

The Gap State High School's Hannah Kenway, 18, says during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic it felt like the wind was taken out of their sails, and it was hard to maintain motivation. St Paul's School's Natasha Bryce, 18, agrees that the stress of a normal final school year comes from the pressure of knowing "there's a lot ahead of you and a lot to focus on". "Having that on top of the stresses of COVID-19, that was a lot of stress, a lot of unknown … it was difficult to do your schooling," she says. But as Benjamin Choat reports, after
a while he felt "acceptance a couple of months later when COVID kept rolling in and a bit of hope when it started to slow down and things started to get a bit more normal".

St Paul's School's Daniel Dawes, 17, experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. "I would say the majority of it has been frustration, at how unconventional this year has been but at the same time I see opportunity and managed to get through it the best I can," he says.



Albany Creek State High School's Melissa Petroff, 17, says the bonding of the school's Year 12 was a plus from the pandemic. "We're all kind of suffering through it together," she says. "It was a lot of adapting, we had to change events to make them suitable to guidelines, a lot of things were cancelled so we had to be more creative with how we celebrated Year 12."

Stephanie Khan says this year has made her more grateful for her school and friends.

"It made me feel so much more thankful than I had been," she says. And Phoebe Lingard, 17, also from Girls Grammar, says despite missing her friends during lockdown, and "even though we were so disconnected, it almost brought our grade closer together."

Alister Gomersall, 17, says part of Brisbane Boys' College's culture revolves around sport and spectating, "And obviously that was all gone, so we've had to be creative about how we foster that spirit and culture."

Ben Weber, 17, from St Joseph's Nudgee College, suggests with all the challenges they've endured this year, the boys became closer and that wouldn't necessarily have otherwise happened. "So we've had a really strong cohort this year. We've cherished everything more so than we would have originally," he says.

Year 12 students have come to treasure the smaller things, as Brisbane Grammar School's Will McEniery, 18, says, "I appreciate the ability to go out and do things with friends, I wouldn't have had that appreciation before."



Ben Weber says he was able to keep up with his lessons through online learning, but "a computer screen can't replace human contact". "It was more strenuous, because you weren't getting that interaction,'' he says.

Stephanie Khan believes online learning could never replace the school environment, saying she cried when she was able to go back in the classroom and study with her friends again. "Everyone was really happy," she recalls.

Brisbane Grammar School's Will Chapman, 18, says the sudden transition to remote learning left him in disbelief. "You spend all 13 years of school at school and then you have to learn at home, it was pretty different," he says. He adds that it didn't last as long as remote schooling in NSW and Victoria did, "so it wasn't too bad".

Phoebe Lingard feels having face-to-face contact with teachers is so important, that losing that was the challenge.

Students recall that their schools did everything they could to support them. Our Lady's College's Ella Gilbert, 17, says she saw the home learning period coming, and it was an opportunity to get ahead of the game. "We have to learn how to work at our own pace, similar to university, and it was a good change but it's unfortunate it was during Year 12," she says.


The Future

The immediate future is now looking very different for Natasha Bryce, who had planned to move to England and work in a boarding school before undertaking higher education.

"But obviously that's not possible any more because of COVID-19 so now I'm moving into study," she says.

Daniel Dawes admitts he's always been a bit concerned about the unknown but is "confident in following my goals and I feel like I'll work around whatever the future holds".



Phoebe Lingard is feeling hopeful about the future. "I'm excited to see what next year will bring. I think it will work out OK for all of us," she says.

Mary MacKillop College's Mikayla Corrie-Muller, 17, says there are still "good outcomes" the cohort can look forward to, and "we can still graduate". "I think there will always be opportunities in a way to get where I want to go," she says.

Sarah Keune, 18, from Albany Creek State High School says this year has changed her plans for going to Schoolies and having fun with friends, but overall the experience has made her more proactive.


Rites of Passage

The Albany Creek student admits the year has been a "little bit of a let down". "You only really get to do it once, in your last year, and it's meant to be the year you do it all together because you never really see each other again," she says.

Benjamin Choat was really disappointed at first "but in a way accepted that this had to happen to keep us all safe". "It was a real sadness to me that I didn't get to do things that other year levels and cohorts have done before us, but we could be worse off," he says.

Will Chapman is "quite disappointed we couldn't have crowds at sporting events; everyone looks forward to being a senior and leading war cries and so on".

But The Gap State High School's Lachlan Hobart, 18, says the cohort was "just working with what we've got and I feel like we're getting the best from what we can this year". Grateful that most events were only postponed, Daniel Dawes says for those traditions that were cancelled or drastically changed, "it's been incredibly disappointing".

"But it's something I try not to dwell upon because it is the same for everyone," he says.

Melissa Petroff feels the cancellations and changes have impacted the overall mood of the year. "Everyone feels less excited, I feel like we all need to be making the best out of it and be creative," she says.



Despite the setbacks, challenges and the final year they never expected, most Year 12 students say they still had a good year.

Alister Gomersall says this year has changed every Year 12 student as a person, more than they could have thought. "Now I'm looking back and I'm appreciating more of what we did have than I would have if COVID-19 didn't hit," he says.

It has taught the class of 2020 how to be resilient, Mikayla Corrie-Muller says. "Being the first Year 7s in high school and the first through ATAR we already had to be resilient and this year has reinforced that," she says.

Lachlan Hobart says they are doing the best they can. "I don't think any Year 12 has ever really said it's been an easy year," he muses. While the year has been disrupted, Will McEniery says, "It wasn't as bad as it could have been".

And this year will set them up for life, Daniel Dawes suggests. "I think it's set me up quite well for the future in terms of being prepared for whatever is thrown at you, whether in the workplace or just in life," he says.

Hannah Kenway acknowledges that this year has proved she has resilience. "I can find peace and clarity within myself no matter what's happening in the world. It is possible to just take a minute for yourself," she says.


Qweekend - Class of 2020 at New Farm Park. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Qweekend - Class of 2020 at New Farm Park. Picture: Mark Cranitch.



In three words, how would you describe 2020?


● Alister Gomersall, 17

Brisbane Boys' College

Unpredictable. Challenging. Creative.

● Ben Weber, 17

St Joseph's Nudgee College

Unique. Challenging. Strengthening.

● Stephanie Khan, 17

Brisbane Girls Grammar School

Challenging. Difficult. Curve ball.

● Mikayla Corrie-Muller, 17

Mary MacKillop College, Nundah

Challenging. Disappointing. Resilience-building.

● Ella Gilbert, 17

Our Lady's College

Challenging. Change. Difficult.

● Lachlan Hobart, 18

The Gap State High School

Different. Challenging. Creative.

● Phoebe Lingard, 17

Brisbane Girls Grammar School

Challenging. Different. Character-building.

● Natasha Bryce, 18

St Paul's School

Stressful. Different. Eye-opening.

● Will McEniery, 18

Brisbane Grammar School

Disrupted. Compromising. Surprising.

● Sarah Keune, 18

Albany Creek State High School

Crazy, fun, challenging.

● Melissa Petroff, 17

Albany Creek State High School

Unpredictable. Interesting. Different.

● Benjamin Choat, 18,

St Edmund's College

Unique. Eventful. Different.

● Daniel Dawes, 17

St Paul's School

Unpredictable. Interesting. Different.

● Will Chapman, 18

Brisbane Grammar School

Uncertainty, challenging, rewarding.

● Hannah Kenway, 18

The Gap State High School,

Memorable, unique, hectic.

● Jess Morgan, 17

Cavendish Road State High School

Challenging. Life changing. Memorable.


Originally published as Tears, stress and hope: How Class of 2020 survived hellish year

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