‘The one thing we still have’: Schoolies a beacon for the class of 2021

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There were moments during the lockdowns this year that year 12 student Kallista Georgakopoulos considered dropping out.

“I moved to a new school this year,” says the 18-year-old from Tecoma, in Melbourne’s outer east. “It was really tough. I wasn’t doing well mentally.

Kallista Georgakopoulos, 18, is preparing for a four-day trip to Rye for schoolies.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“It was really hard to find the motivation to get up in the morning and go to class online and everything was cancelled. The fun part of year 12 was taken away from us almost.”

But Kallista pulled through, completing her VCE unscored, and from next weekend she will get at least one of the pre-pandemic rites of passage for school-leavers as Schoolies 2021 kicks off.

She is headed to the Mornington Peninsula for four nights with a group of friends, and is counting down the days to a stretch of beach parties and blowing off steam with friends she has hardly seen in person this year.

For the second year, Schoolies has been impacted by COVID-19. While official events are going ahead on the Gold Coast and at Airlie Beach and Byron Bay, Victorians can’t cross the Queensland border.

Many students have opted for local getaways with less cash to spend after being unable to work during the lockdowns, and the uncertainty of border rules proving too much of a headache to gamble with.

Closer to home, dance floors in nightclubs will have returned by the time the two-week party period kicks off, and coastal areas are shaping up as the destination of choice for Victorian students.

Alexa Kalathoor, 17, from Mernda in Melbourne’s outer north, says her Schoolies trip will be somewhat more subdued than the overseas trip she had dreamt of since her early high school.

She’ll be taking public transport (including a ferry) to Portarlington on the Bellarine Peninsula with five friends for three nights of “rest and rejuvenation” in a townhouse by the sea.

“For me, there’s a real sense of liberation around this trip and around graduating, I think, after the last two years,” she says.

“To go and stay with friends without my parents around – I haven’t done that without any sort of adult supervision before. That will be a lot of fun.”

But for some others, the stop-start nature of the final year of schooling and part-time work has dampened enthusiasm and spending money for Schoolies.

Claire Lock, of Bright, 300 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, had always envisaged post-high school celebrations involving backpacking through Europe or South America.

But working part-time during VCE in hospitality during a pandemic hasn’t been conducive to saving, and despite international borders reopening, travel still feels risky.

“(After) everything that’s happened over the past two years through VCE, I’m pretty tired, and I feel like I don’t necessarily have the energy to want to go out and party,” says Claire.

Instead, the 18-year-old plans to spend the next few weeks at home, spending time with friends, making up for lost time and “recovering emotionally” from the experience of the pandemic, which kicked off with bushfires in the local area.

“We’ve got graduation coming up and then we can really put year 12 behind us and really just enjoy the time that we’ve got left before we go to university or our gap years or go into full-time employment.”

Katherine Ellis, CEO of the peak body for young Victorians the Youth Affairs Council Victoria, said the class of 2021 was deserving of a break after a tough few years but also having turned up in droves to be vaccinated.

“Many in this cohort of students will feel that their youth, and the opportunities that should come with it, have evaporated before their eyes,” she said. “These students deserve the certainty of a better future, especially after the sacrifices they’ve made to keep the community healthy and safe.”

For Kallista, who runs a Facebook group for more than 2000 Schoolies headed to Rye this month, the excitement and the relief among its members is palpable.

“Everybody’s so excited. Of all the things that were taken away from us to, this is the one thing we still have,” she says.

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