The HSC class of 2020 is faced with the harsh reality that half-completed major works are now "practically impossible" to complete.
Taylor Murr has always known her HSC Visual Arts Body of Work would be something spectacular. In the four years she has studied the subject, the Woolooware High student's vision has come to encompass a fusion of art forms to showcase her varied skillset.
By mid-March, she had choreographed three contemporary dances and trained three separate troupes of dancers to perform them. She had created original music and painted large-scale expressive paintings to frame each dance. Each component was a small step towards the production of a six-minute video which she planned to submit as her HSC Visual Arts Body of Work.
Taylor could visualise the ambitious project in her mind. She had forged a connection with her concept over the years, inspired by a quote by Pablo Picasso that the first dance was about being confined to rules, the next, fighting those rules and the third dance signified freedom in art.
She had no idea her own freedom to create and perform art would soon be restricted. Five days before the video shoot at Cronulla Beach in Sydney's south, a date which had been set months earlier, the NSW State Government announced parents were strongly encouraged to keep their kids at home.
"I didn't really click with it at first. I rang my art teacher and was like, 'I'm meant to be filming my dancers in five days and everyone is being told to stay at home'." Taylor said. "Miss urged, 'well look you need to try and film them as quick as you possibly can'."
'It was something I was so excited for, so for it to be, all of a sudden, near impossible, I was just devastated.'
As schools effectively closed, a range of stringent social distancing measures were rolled out, accompanied by tough fines. Suddenly, the law limited outside social interaction to no more than two people, banned non-essential travel and proposed the closure of all beaches.
Taylor had choreographed two large group dances, one involved 15 dancers. "For me to just say to 20 people, 'hey get to Cronulla, don't worry about the virus, I need you to do this for my major work', was near impossible," she said. "I couldn't ask people to risk their health."
She was in denial at first, refusing to believe months of choreography, dance training and painting were all for nothing, as the new government regulations brought her artwork to a halt. Taylor is one of thousands of 2020 HSC students seriously impacted as months of planning and hard work looks likely to be "scrapped".
"It was something I was so excited for, so for it to be, all of a sudden, near impossible, I was just devastated," she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked health and economic disruption at many levels of society. An extra 450,000 Australians applied for unemployment benefits in the first month of the lockdown. For the HSC class of 2020, the big fear is around the future impact this disruption will have on their lives. Students are concerned their HSC marks will suffer, hindering opportunities for university entry and future employment in a tough jobs market.
Taylor Murr has been building her major work vision for four years.SUPPLIED
Lisa Cox, Head Teacher of Creative and Performing Arts at Woolooware High said one issue was the transition to online learning worked better for some subjects than for others. "It is easier to teach Mathematics online when you're learning out of a textbook," Cox said. "Visual Arts students are missing that really valuable teacher-student interaction that just happens day in, day out in the classroom."
"Sometimes you just need the objective person to come along and be critical about the artwork, darken this part or your left ear is crooked," she said. "It's going to be too late by the time the teacher sees the error, it won't be able to be fixed in many cases."
HSC Drama teacher, Pan Micos, also at Woolooware, said Drama had been "the worst hit", emphasising loss of the crucial role of practising in front of a live audience. "Imagine trying to do a funny monologue but no one is laughing because no one is there."
The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) has assured students that no one will be disadvantaged in relation to university entry, however, Cox believes it will be impossible for NESA to equitably make judgements on students' ability across the areas of music, drama and visual arts. "I can't see how it can be a fair test," Mrs Cox said. "The students embarked on this journey last October and they've changed the rules half-way through the process."
Students studying Industrial Technology have also been separated from their project work and required power tools at a crucial time. Adam Raiti, a Year 12 student at Trinity Grammar, in Sydney's Inner West, was "hoping to boost his ATAR" with a great mark for his major work, a coffee table made with black wood timber. He spent $1200 on the materials for the project and the timber was delivered to the school two days before parents were advised to keep their children at home.
Adam has had no choice but to press pause on his project's development. He is concerned there is no way he will be able to catch up and achieve the high standard of work he planned to submit.
"If I knew we were going to be stuck at home I wouldn't have chosen a major work because I can't do any work on it." Adam said. "With Construction, we need to show our teacher that we are competent to move timber around the worksite, cut timber, we can't give him theory work."
Further issues lie in the availability of resources, access to specialised equipment and the cost of materials. "One of my mates, his dad is in the industry, which to me, seems like a bit of an advantage," Adam said. "It's difficult for everyone else because we don't have the resources."
Although Adam worried he may not achieve the marks he believed he deserved, he thought he was in a better position than most, still highly motivated and determined to do whatever he could to achieve a high score. "Now, being home, all I can do is work on my folio, get that up to date and better that," Adam said. "I know there are kids that have just given up on everything."
Micos is concerned for the mental health of students placed in this high-stress situation, particularly for kids that have a preexisting mental health disorder. "This situation will exacerbate their condition," she said. "Because they need the human contact to keep them calm. You need to look at them in the eyes often and just say, stop. Calm down. This is what we are doing. One step at a time."
NESA updated its website in late April with changed guidelines for practical examinations, appearing to acknowledge concerns about group performances and major works. First, the ensemble performance exam in Music Extension and the mandatory group project Drama performances were removed.
NESA has also moved the marking of some components of the practical exams from an external mark provided by HSC markers to a mark provided by the teacher, saying teachers will be best placed to provide a mark as they have been monitoring each student's progress on their projects and body of work since the beginning of the HSC year. Further, "if, due to the impact of COVID-19, student work is incomplete or has been disrupted, the teacher may estimate a mark".
Despite the clarifications, it all adds up to a mountain of uncertainty. The cancellation of the classic Year 12 events, such as carnivals, and "Schoolies" alongside the questions surrounding formals, exhibitions, and graduation ceremonies has left many students struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Head teacher Cox advises all Year 12 students to try and adapt to the situation the best they can. "We are still your teachers and still absolutely on deck. Don't hesitate. Ring us. Text us. Zoom us. Do what you need to do," she said. "Just try and simulate normal."
Taylor Murr's 2020 Instagram motto is "Shine like a diamond, dream big, dive in the deep end, dance till your heart is content and always stick with your ride or dies". With dance troupes on Cronulla Beach out of the question, she has refocussed on ways to creatively interpret this new interior experience. Coming to terms with the fact that her original art major work will not be feasible under new social distancing and stay at home regulations, she revised her concept to recognise the virus's undeniable impact on everyone this year and she has adapted her artwork accordingly.
"I've got a new quote in mind and it's about how there has to be bad times and sadness in the world for there to be good times," she said. "I'm going to film inside but I'll be looking out the window at a dancer, trying to show the change from being able to go outside and do what ever we want to being told to stay inside and be isolated."