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A Year 11’s Perspective on COVID

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I recently received an email from a Louise Madden, mum of Emily, which read:

Our dear Em was invited to speak to representatives of the Premier’s Economic and Social Advisory Council in Hobart this week about the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of year 11 and 12 students. I sure hope they were expecting to hear an emotional story of such vulnerability, complexity and hope. And more than that, I hope that the story Emma chose to share will help inform decisions that recognise the now amplified challenges across all domains for young people navigating their toughest years in even tougher circumstances. It’s LONG. But worth it.

I have decided to share her words with her permission as a blog post, as I want to encourage adults to listen to young people’s stories, especially those who have found this year tough. As you read Emily’s words below, you will notice that each moment meant something significant to her. The more we are able to help our teens articulate and add meaning to this year’s experiences, the better equipped they will be to look forward and learn. Your teens experience may have been similar or different, but there will come a time in each of their lives where their story will hold great significance in their life journey.

Good Morning, ladies and gentlemen. 

From the age of 12, it has been my plan to become a lawyer. It has been my dream to go to The University of Melbourne to complete my undergrad, before undertaking my Juris Doctor. I have always felt driven to help people, and I have been working towards this goal for the last several years.

I needed this year to go well. To build the future I have hoped for and worked towards, I needed this year to go well.

In January, I took a week off from my job at McDonalds and went to Melbourne with my dad. Having studied at Melbourne Uni himself, he was excited to show me around the campus. It was easy to picture myself studying in the library, walking between classes, and attending lectures. My future in that space was tangible. It felt real.

To be eligible to study a bachelors degree at the university of Melbourne, I would require an ATAR of 85. To work towards this, I began the academic year taking 3 high level TASC subjects, and I wanted to be able to count two of them towards my ATAR so that in grade 12 there would be less pressure academically and I would be able to continue to work in my job at McDonalds to save money for Uni after graduating.  

The year started well for me – I was achieving As and Bs in my classes and was appointed as Debating Captain. Things were settled in my home, with my three younger siblings engaged in their school and extra- curricular commitments. My dad works as a financial manager and my mum was working in therapeutic residential care for teenagers.

As we moved through our daily lives and routines, news about ‘coronavirus’ started to filter into news bulletins. Naively I believed that we were safe here in Australia and even more so in Tassie. I thought that this would be one of those things we would hear about, and feel awful for people who have to experience it, but that it would never actually impact us. When cases started being reported in mainland Australia, McDonalds started implementing nationwide safety procedures, such as plexiglass screens, and enhanced cleaning processes. Even then, I still believed we were safe in Tassie.

Until we weren’t.

I went on a camp with our school’s senior out-reach program – Ascent. We were split into 2 groups. We got word on our bus that the other group was stopped at Campbelltown due to one of the students having to return home as his brother had been placed in quarantine. And suddenly it was real. The threat was not just here in my state, it was in my school community, impacting my peers. In this instance, it was a false alarm. But now there was a cloud of uncertainty and worry hanging over us. 

Covid-19 became the focal point of all conversation, I became obsessed with consuming as much news about it as I could. I could reel off statistics and facts, recite safety procedures and would wait each night for the new case numbers to be announced. I became addicted to seeking information, an addiction fed by a relentless 24 hour news cycle. Hyper-fixation is symptomatic of the chronic anxiety I have experienced for many years. But this didn’t feel like a stress response, this felt like a completely rational way to behave.

With two weeks to go before the end of term 1, I was still achieving excellent results in my classes and I began coaching the junior debaters, looking to the season ahead with excitement and optimism. Drama club had started up again and I was working on a project to support vulnerable students within our school. I needed this year to go well, and it was off to a great start.

On Friday afternoon, 2 weeks before the end of term 1, Mr. Douglas spoke through the PA to tell us to clear out our lockers, that we would not be returning to school until further notice. We had the last 20 minutes of the day to make sure we had everything we needed. My bus is one of the first to leave. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.

Things had changed at home, too. My mum had left her job in resi care to keep our family safe. Dad was working from home, and they took the Littles out of school early because my little brother was born with a hole in his heart and my little sister has low immunity and severe anxiety. There was so much we didn’t know about Covid, we weren’t taking any chances.

It was fun at first, my mum started a pyjama school for the Littles and they got to learn different languages and cook international food. I loved helping them in the kitchen. One of the best things about us all being at home was sitting at the table together for every meal each day, safe and secure in our own little bubble. But the thing about having little people in your learning space is that it becomes incredibly hard to learn. They are loud, they are needy, they do PE with Joe at full volume. They argue and they need help with their technology (and sometimes, parents do too). We all tried to be respectful of each other, but 6 people in one house is always going to be a challenge.

As we moved through the school holidays, I was still working regularly at McDonalds and we began to rework our space at home to accommodate for the official start of Learning @ Home. Timetables were put up on the walls and play spaces became work spaces.

Monday came around and learning @ home started. It was awful. We had to stay in google meets with our cameras on for the duration of our class time. It was exhausting. I felt uncomfortable and self-conscious and out of control. It felt like every class was a performance. Drama club was done via google meet, and I just couldn’t bring myself to attend after a full day of having to be ‘on’ in class. Despite being exhausted, I couldn’t sleep properly, I suspect due to so much time spent in front of a screen. I stopped messaging my friends, my grades fell and I lost all motivation. I couldn’t concentrate, I would zone out, and the subjects I was so passionate about became frustrating and confusing. I felt untethered. Like I was just going through the motions. 

Two weeks before we were officially required to return to onsite learning, I had a panic attack so severe that my parents had to call an ambulance because I was struggling to breathe. At the hospital I was told that there was nothing physically wrong with me, and that I should just stop being so anxious.

The decision was made that I should return to school early so that I could be around other people and learn in a classroom environment. But it wasn’t the same. It was still google meets and minimal face to face teaching, just in the classroom instead of my bedroom.

A week later, everyone returned to campus. I was in English when I had my first episode. My right hand began to tremble uncontrollably. It stopped after a while, but when I went to stand at the end of class, my legs would not support me. My muscles started to convulse and I struggled to breathe. The school called an ambulance and my parents and I was taken to hospital again. Once again, I was told there was nothing wrong with me. 

The episodes became more frequent and debilitating. For a period of several weeks, my right hand would shake constantly. I had to leave my job at McDonalds and it was decided that it was no longer safe for me to be at school, so I was back to learning @ home – but this time with no virtual classes. My mum and dad pushed for me to be able to change my student status to part time, and withdraw from English Lit. This helped enormously, and I returned to school just in time for mid-year exams, having missed a significant amount of class time. I had a separate exam room and a scribe because my hand was shaking so badly that I couldn’t hold a pen. I had several episodes during each of my exams which impacted my results. I got Cs on my legal exam and I only passed maths because they lowered the pass mark due to lockdown.

During this time I went through a series of tests to rule out anything physiological. And the results were always the same. My body was fine. My mind was not. I reached out to Headspace to get some support for my mental health. They had long waiting lists and even then, only telehealth was available. Eventually I was referred to CAMHS, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, which was the lifeline I needed for my mental health.

My episodes slowed and then stopped soon after exams, and I have spent the rest of this year playing catch-up. I had barely done enough work in legal to cover all my criteria and I was behind in maths due to missing 2 units while I was away.

My main chance to recover my marks was at the end of year exams last week. My legal exam went well, but during my maths exam on Thursday, I had my first episode in months. It hurt so much, and I feel like I failed by letting it happen again, even though logically I know that it’s not in my control. I had to leave my exam early and apply for derived results. Since then, I’ve felt shaken and off balance. I needed this year to go well.

Covid has impacted every aspect of my life. From school, to family relationships, from work, to not being able to get my license due to my episodes making it unsafe. I haven’t been able to see my family in Victoria, I haven’t been a present friend. This year has not gone well.

The same can be said for my year 12 friends, who have finished their high school careers with a year of disjointed disruption. Their celebrations have changed, there is no whole school graduation ceremony to begin their journey outside of high school. I have no doubt that their grades and mental health have been impacted, and there are dark clouds around interstate and international university attendance, and international gap years. I have very dear friends who were working in hospitality and retail when Covid hit, who lost their jobs and their income as they did not qualify for any government assistance being under 18. I have one friend who has now changed her university plans and will stay in Launceston because that loss of income has meant that she can no longer afford the transition to university and living independently interstate.  I have a good friend who has decided not to go to university interstate as he is so worried that borders will close during a second wave and he doesn’t want to be cut off from his family. 

I have recently applied for and been successfully in getting a new job. I was one of many juniors who applied for this role, which was advertised by word of mouth alone. My peers are finding it incredibly difficult to obtain work. The retail sector in Launceston is dismal, and hospitality is still recovering from a massive down-turn. There are fewer jobs available and more applicants than ever before.

Looking ahead to next year, I am already feeling anxious. I have nominated four level three TASC subjects for next year. If I don’t succeed in them, I face doing year 13, putting my life on hold, and graduating a year behind my cohort. I needed this year to go well.

The job I have is seasonal work and I’m feeling an extreme amount of pressure to excel academically so that I can move toward the future I have planned for myself. I know that there are many pathways towards achieving my goal of being a lawyer, but I resent that a pandemic that was completely unanticipated could potentially derail me. It is sobering to realise that despite having a supportive family, a supportive school, access to mental health support, great friendships and a solid work history, something so completely out of my control could wreak such havoc on my daily life and on my future plans.

So now I need next year to go well.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

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