Principals of schools in the Covid-19 hotspot local government areas have warned the decision to proceed with delayed face-to-face HSC, with no certainty their schools will be able to open, could further entrench inequality in western and south-west Sydney communities.
The decision to postpone the HSC until 9 November in order to proceed with face-to-face exams in NSW has divided students, teachers and schools.
The concern is particularly acute in the 12 local government areas of concern, where lockdowns have gone on for longer, while some families have had the added strain of Covid-19 within their family or lockdowns at their schools.
The principal of Georges River Grammar, Raquel Charet, said it was particularly devastating for her students who were in one of the areas with high case numbers.
“I am worried that we will string them along for another couple of months and then they still won’t be able to do their exams,” she said.
“There is already a sense of being left behind in our LGAs. No one is giving clear advice and it is highly unlikely, given the level of case numbers now, that we will be able to go ahead with the HSC,” she said.
The government has said that schools would not reopen in LGAs when cases were above 50 per 100,000 of population. A number of LGAs including Canterbury-Bankstown and Cumberland have had case numbers well above that level and cases are still rising.
Other principals in south-west and western Sydney also expressed grave concerns about extending the uncertainty around the HSC for their students and how, given the disadvantage and mental health issues they had already suffered, an equitable HSC could be run.
One principal of an Islamic school, who asked not to be named, said despite the school’s urging, only one-quarter of the school’s HSC students had been vaccinated due to vaccine hesitancy in the community.
For HSC students outside the LGA hotspots, getting a Pfizer shot has proved more difficult because of shortages of vaccine and a lack of appointments.
On Radio National on Monday morning, the NSW education minister, Sarah Mitchell, said she would keep talking to schools that have been most affected by the latest delays to the HSC.
“I agree it’s a disruptive year and I apologise for that,” she said.
Mitchell said vaccines for students were strongly encouraged.
“We hope the supply of Pfizer will grow. I keep making the argument on behalf of students,” she said.
She said the NSW Education Standards Authority would produce an exam timetable “hopefully in early September”.
She insisted that schools would be able to manage the HSC and would ensure social distancing by using external venues as well as classrooms.
Facebook groups of year 12 students reflected the anxiety that many students feel, from concerns about the uncertainty of the exams actually going ahead to the loss of an important rite of passage – schoolies – which usually takes place immediately after the exams in November.
“There is no consensus,” said Angelo Gavrielatos, the president of the NSW Teachers Federation, which represents teachers in the public school system.
“Announcements have already been made on how the HSC will be assessed in some areas, such as major works and performances. Whatever announcement the government makes, we expect the health and safety of students to be paramount,” he said.
The chief executive of Catholic Schools NSW and a member of the Nesa board, Dallas McInerney, said that while external exams were a great leveller, “the degree of difficulty of staging a written HSC within the public health orders while faithfully addressing the equity concerns (as we must) has risen dramatically.”
He said the Nesa Covid response committee had been in place since 2020 and would be advising the government on all options.
Over the weekend Mark Scott, former head of the Department of Education, now vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Sydney, noted how bewildering the experience of the HSC was for 2021 students.
But he sought to reassure students that there will be university places across the country for those who want them and advised not to get hung up on getting a single Atar or into a single course because there were many paths available into courses.
“We’re now working with Nesa and will make Atar adjustments that best recognise the unique challenges that 2021 students have faced. We also have a scheme for students who have experienced financial hardship, or who live in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage or in rural and regional areas,” he said.
The convener of the vice-chancellors committee, Barney Glover, also stressed there were many pathways into university and students should just focus on doing their best.
Professor Jennie Hudson, from the Black Dog Institute at the University of NSW, said the continued uncertainty about the HSC would further increase stress on young people.
“We know that stress increases in the final year of school. Continuing to change it will add to that stress. We need to get rid of uncertainty,” she said.
While the advice to HSC students is to work consistently, Hudson said not all students approached exams this way and some people needed to work to a timetable and change was very uncomfortable.
Hudson said evidence-based care was particularly needed for HSC students to ensure their mental health. She said it was likely there would be a big jump in disability provision requests in 2021.