What does it feel like to be a Leaving Cert student coming of age in the middle of a global pandemic?
During one of their last classes at Lucan Community College, teacher Marion Freeman is listing through students' responses to an online survey on how they are coping.
“I’m seeing words like ‘stressed’. ‘Excited’. ‘Anxious’. ‘Sad but happy’. ‘Nervous for the future’. ‘Pressured’,” she says.
“These are all completely understandable responses . . . It’s nice to see you’re excited, though, and looking forward to things.”
It’s a recurring theme during interviews with sixth years on a year that changed everything. The pandemic has disrupted their education, turned their personal lives upside down and changed their outlook on life.
On the threshold of adulthood, many say they feel grateful for what they once took for granted, more resilient given what they have been through but still anxious about the future.
For David Wright (18), there is the small matter of the Leaving Cert to get through first. Like most students in the school, he has opted to sit the written exams and avail of accredited grades based on teachers’ estimates.
The fact that students who are close contacts or have Covid-19 symptoms will not be allowed to sit their exams is an added layer of anxiety.
“It’s a huge worry, so I’m taking extra care, taking extra precautions, making sure I’m not doing anything unnecessary,” says Wright, who hopes to study actuarial science in UCD. “I’m socially distancing, wearing a mask at all times. You have to be so safe. Otherwise, it could really change your future. You could miss out on your college course. I don’t want that to happen.”
Like others, several months of schools closures mean that 19-year-old Caroline Copeland’s classes were reduced to little rectangles on her computer screen. She values being in school more than ever.
“It impacts on your mental health . . . when you come in here to school and there’s 1,000 students, you can talk to people; whereas at home, you’re in your bedroom for seven or eight hours, with very little social contact.”
Amid the lockdown students like Ben Malone (19) ended up on the frontline in the fight against Covid-19. He volunteers with the Order of Malta, which has been supporting the Health Servic e Executive in the public health response.
“It was busy and a real step up, working in the back of the ambulance in full PPE [personal protective equipment]. It was weird, but a fantastic experience and I learned a lot of new skills.”
He now hopes to go on to study paramedic science at the University of Ulster.
Temi Gbenle (18) has also been busy: she has a part-time job as a pharmacy technician in Boots, which she has juggled alongside her schoolwork.
Like her classmates, she’s missed out on social events and milestones, but she’s not embittered about it.
“Debs and graduations: when you start school, those are the big rewards for 14 years of school. I wish they were options for us, but I’m not angry; there’s good reason for them not going ahead,’ says Gbenle, who hopes to study law. “There will be other balls and events in college and we’ll be able to do things with our close friends.”
The pandemic has also loomed large in Mary Grace Arejola’s (19) day-to-day life: both her parents work as nurses on the frontline.
With her mother and father out working during school closures, she says she learned quickly to work for herself,
“I always thought I was a bit lazy – but it helped me to gain independence with study . . . I didn’t have anyone over my shoulder. No one was pressuring me to do work – but it kind of prepared me for college in some ways.”
The pandemic has convinced Lucy Horrigan (18) that she wants to work as a nurse or doctor. “They’ve been real superheroes,” she says.
She feels what she and her classmates have been through will stand to them in future life. “It sounds weird to say, but Covid has been a blessing in one way: it shows how resilient we’ve been,” she says. “We’ve faced so many hurdles since March 2020. It shows that things will be thrown at you in life and you can overcome them. There will be difficult days. But you can get through them . . . if you can survive the last year, you can survive anything . . . and better days are to come.”
The pandemic has helped put events like the Leaving Cert into perspective for David Griffin (18). “I’ve learned that exams aren’t the be all and end all,” he says. “I’m still putting a lot of work in, but I’m not letting it overconsume my life.”
Lucan Community College principal Diane Birnie feels proud at how the school community has responded.
“Our students have come through a difficult time,” she says. “That’s the way the world is; it makes us struggle through difficult times. They are coming out of it clear on their personal strengths and aware of how to overcome a challenge I’m proud of then for embracing the challenge, doing the best they could, and learning from it.”
Back in class, students are exploring strategies to deal with stress and anxiety in the run-up to the exams. They are sticking Post-It notes on the wall describing “what’s going well” for them: “Our school graduation is going ahead,” says one note; “Being back in school”; “Getting hands-on learning”; “Seeing my friends”; “Realising what I like in life”.
“Those are lovely, positive messages,” says teacher Marion Freeman. “We’re still here, we’ve great memories – the good, the bad and the ugly – and we’ll take them and grow with them.”