‘You can’t help but help’: year 12 students forgo VCE study to fortify Echuca’s town hall against floods

Daniel Andrews says Victoria’s education authorities will make derived exam scores available for students affected by flooding

Cleo Oberin was meant to spend Wednesday celebrating “muck-up day”, the final day of high school for her and her classmates.

Instead, she was armed with a shovel on the main street of Echuca in Victoria with an army of teenagers, fortifying the historic town hall.

“I tried studying the other day but your mind isn’t in it,” she says.

The St Joseph’s college students still haven’t been told if their final VCE exams will start next week as scheduled.

The school was shut on Monday, and on Tuesday students were advised it would remain closed until at least the end of the week in expectation of major flooding to hit the border towns of Echuca and Moama.

They call it the "Great Wall of Echuca" - a levee wall stretching the length of Echuca's NRMA Holiday Park. The army of locals spent hours constructing the fortification in the hope the wall will protect the town from incoming floodwaters. Video courtesy of Miriam Marage. pic.twitter.com/IfcpOfmseE

— Guardian Australia (@GuardianAus) October 19, 2022

The nearby New South Wales border township of Moama’s Anglican grammar school had already cancelled HSC exams due to start this week, because of the floods.

“It’s a bit weird right now it’s all up in the air … nobody knows what’s going to happen … we’re just in a bit of limbo,” Cleo says. “Do we study? Help? You can’t help but help. Everyone’s here.”

Cleo’s entire friendship group was stationed on the main street; some were shovelling sand, while others were operating mini forklifts and tying bags.

After Covid lockdowns and remote learning, her cohort had been excited to celebrate their last day of school. “But we’re all here,” Cleo says resolutely.

“It’s a very, very strange time … The last full year we had was year nine. We’ve had disturbance since then.

“But I keep thinking everyone’s in the same boat. We’re all in this together, you can’t help but feel down, but when everyone comes out like this it’s heartwarming.”

On Tuesday, Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, said the Victorian Curriculum of Assessment Authority and the Department of Education and Training would automatically make derived exam scores available for students directly affected by flooding.

People with shovels surround a huge pile of sand as they fill sandbags
A sandbagging production line is at work in Moama, New South Wales in a race to protect vulnerable properties from the rising Murray River. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The scores take into account extenuating circumstances as well as student work throughout the year in place of exam marks. A hotline was established for schools and VCE students affected by flooding events.

But with the Murray River predicted to peak at levels higher than the 1993 flood from Friday, studying wasn’t at the forefront of the students’ minds.

Year 12 student Sam Deola says plenty of his classmates could be at home readying themselves for a possible exam period but it was the “spirit of the town” for them to help out instead.

“Obviously it’s quite a bummer our schooling is over and we don’t know what’s happening with exams,” he says.

“But when you see houses half underwater, you see families suffering, every person in this community would give up their own time to come out and help out.

“You can’t just sit back and watch people suffer and you can’t see people doing hard work by themselves. There was no chance I was sitting in my room studying. I think it’s pretty special, there’s hundreds of people out here, it brings out the best in people, tough times.”

Hundreds of volunteers – mostly teenagers – worked all morning building a wall to protect the back of the former town hall ahead of expected major flooding on Wednesday.

The hall, built in the 1800s, sits on one of the lowest points in Echuca, backing on to the Murray River. It’s had a long and varied life as a kindergarten, a library and a council office.

Down the road, hundreds of volunteers worked tirelessly to build the “great wall of Echuca”, a levee wall stretching the length of the NRMA Holiday Park.

Volunteer Miriam Marage says the sandbagging had been going on for nearly six days.

“It’s simply incredible to be part of,” she says. “There were ants, sunburn, mozzies and a snake in the water, but we smiled and had a few laughs and soldiered on.”

Year 12 student Macey Barber was also making the best of things, as she had been doing for the past three years.

“I hope [exams] do go ahead but if not … I guess you can’t do much about it,” she says.

“It has been sad … but what can you really do when this happens? The whole year level was ready for it. Nobody really made a big deal out of it, you just have to get over it.”


Caitlin Cassidy

The GuardianTramp

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