Australia

'Swimming with sandbags': Young people faring better through the pandemic but still struggling

'Swimming with sandbags': Young people faring better through the pandemic but still struggling

Young people are now coping better with the COVID-19 pandemic than they were in April, but many still feel like they are "swimming with sandbags" as they juggle disruptions to schooling and increased family responsibilities.

A national survey of 1289 young people for Unicef in August found most felt they had a good ability to cope. However, young people in Melbourne are particularly struggling with the extended lockdown and more imminent virus threat, with only 44 per cent saying they had a good ability to cope compared with 55 per cent nationally.

Emily Thornton, 18, is a year 12 student at the Conservatorium High School.

Emily Thornton, 18, is a year 12 student at the Conservatorium High School.Credit:Rhett Wyman

When Unicef first did the research in April, only 45 per cent of young people nationally felt they had a good ability to cope. At that time, 81 per cent of young people estimated they had a good ability to cope in January before the pandemic made news, while only 30 per cent expected to be coping well by August.

Unicef program and advocacy manager Juliet Attenborough said young people were resilient, with many reporting they had learned coping skills during the pandemic, while the lifting of lockdown across most of the country had also helped.

"They are looking slightly more able to cope compared to April and that is better than they expected but it is still worse than how they thought they'd been going before the pandemic," Ms Attenborough said. "It’s more positive but they’re still definitely under strain."

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Young people feel one of the biggest effects of the pandemic has been on their education, with senior students believing they are behind where they should be and feeling penalised compared with other students who are less affected or those who graduated in different years.

One girl in Melbourne said: "It’s like when you are in a swimming race and … you are swimming with the corona-free person who has had the greatest year 12 experience, but I am with all these bags of sand on my back trying to swim the same race."

More than half of students believe they are behind compared with before the pandemic and while most are receiving support from their schools, 13 per cent say they are not.

Ms Attenborough said there had been focus on the young people who have not returned to formal schooling, but students reported concern for their classmates who have returned but were visibly disengaged and struggling; they "sit at the back of the class and you can tell things aren’t right".

More than half of young people said they had more responsibility at home than before the pandemic, with many reporting that this was a positive thing that made them feel they were contributing. However, one in four said their parents or carers had lost income and one in 20 said they had become the main breadwinner.

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Emily Thornton, 18, from Bayview on the northern beaches, said she had a lot more "certainty" about her final exams than she did in April. She was still "nervous" but the pressure had lessened because she had received an unconditional office to study music and security studies at the Australian National University based on her year 11 results.

Ms Thornton said it was "upsetting and damaging" that she cannot play flute in any orchestras or bands in her final year of school at the Conservatorium High School in the city, because of the ban on woodwind instruments in ensembles. Her main non-musical extracurricular activity of competitive surf life saving also had its season cancelled.

Ghani Mohammad, 17, from the Liverpool area, said he was finding it much easier now he was back at school in person because he could ask his teachers for help. He is hoping to study engineering next year.

The survey had 1289 respondents from a nationally statistically representative sample, including 403 from Melbourne to allow further analysis.

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