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When St Joseph’s, Geelong Yr 12 student, Jolyon Simpon’s parents got COVID-19, this extraordinary young man became both carer and scholar.

The Simpson family’s cosy orange-brick home in Ocean Grove became the surf town’s lone COVID-19 isolation ward in August. Husband and wife healthcare workers Paul and Helen Simpson became infected and their son, Jolyon, suddenly became primary carer and cook for the sick couple as they bunkered down in separate rooms of the house. He is also in year 12, so when he wasn’t donning personal protective equipment to deliver his folks meals, he was catching up with his remote studies in five VCE subjects. For Jolyon, a keen surfer, Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus was an ugly shore breaker threatening to dump his academic ambitions face-first in the sand.

“I was trying to keep up,” he said of his family’s stressful period of isolation in term three. “After the first week or so I struggled, you know, making meals for my family and looking after them during the day, then trying to log on.”

Teachers at his school, Edmund Rice Education Australia’s St Joseph’s College in Geelong, urged him to focus on caring for his family and to let study take a back seat.“ A lot of my teachers said ‘look, there are more important things going on at the moment’. They wanted me to keep in touch as much as I could and do as much work as I could but they didn’t want to put too much pressure on me,” Jolyon said. Some of them also started to drop off cooked meals for dinner, as did the teachers at Sacred Heart College, the Geelong girls’ school Jolyon’s younger sister Matilda goes to.

“It was quite overwhelming in terms of food delivery; virtually every day food parcels were arriving,” Jolyon’s father Paul Simpson said.

Mr Simpson was part of a healthcare team that quickly took control of an aged care home in Geelong that suffered a fatal outbreak of coronavirus in late July.

More than 100 staff were stood down “virtually overnight”, Mr Simpson said, as other health workers “rode in like the cavalry to take over” and care for 150 residents. It was during that first shift – a 14-hour marathon – that Mr Simpson suspects he caught the virus, while helping an elderly woman who had fallen onto the floor.

Mr Simpson spent a week wracked with fever, confined to a bedroom, door closed, while his wife Helen, also a hospital worker, confined herself to the lounge room after catching the virus from him.

Paul and Helen emerged from their isolation after two weeks, but their children’s schools remained closed to them for the rest of the term under Victoria’s coronavirus restrictions. Jolyon, for whom the beginning of the year 12 exam period is just a few days away, said he and many of his classmates were just aching to put the year behind them.

“Everyone, teachers and students included, is a bit drained from this crazy year,” he said.

“We’ve really got to knuckle down and try and push as much as we can, but having the special consideration is going to help a lot because I do feel like not everyone is going to be at their best.”

St Joseph’s College principal Tony Paatsch said the year 12 students of 2020 were forced to take extra responsibility for their own learning in the highest-stakes year of their schooling lives. “There’s absolutely no doubt that for the vast majority of students, their ability to learn and perform in exams has been impacted by COVID and remote learning,” Mr Paatsch said.

(This first appeared in The Age – 6/11/20 – with thanks to Adam Carey)

Year 12 St Joseph’s College, Geelong student Jolyon Simpson with his parents Helen and Paul. Credit: Chris Hopkins