NCEA and Scholarship exams start this morning, involving 140,000 teenagers over the next four weeks.
The exams have begun 10 days later than originally planned in recognition of the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic.
Schools lost five-and-a-half weeks of classroom time during the national lockdown in April and May, and Auckland schools lost a further two-and-a-half weeks in the city's lockdown in August.
Principals told RNZ extra "learning recognition credits" awarded to students this year would go a long way to ensuring they achieved their NCEA qualifications.
But they said they still had to run extra classes after school, on weekends and during the holidays to ensure students covered everything they needed to before the end of the year.
The principal of Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate, Kiri Turketo, said teachers had done a lot to help students catch up on their learning.
But she said the pandemic had created a lot of uncertainty and hurt students' confidence.
"The catch-up credits have been great and they have allowed us a foundation and a platform to stand on for our students. But it's still not enough for a lot of our students," she said.
"What has been exacerbated is the real anxiety that exists for our young people and we know that with fear and anxiety comes a whole lot of road blocks."
Turketo said it was harder for students to see what their futures might be, so the school had worked hard to give them a sense of stability.
"Is it different? Absolutely. Is it better or worse? Only time will tell because we're putting in all the backstops we can to help our students," she said.
Turketo said teachers had given up weekends, holidays and after-school hours to support students academically and mentally.
The principal of Papatoetoe High School, Vaughan Couillault, said the biggest problem was not so much the teaching time lost to the second lockdown, as the impact on students' motivation.
"I just am not sure how things will land with regard to energy levels and engagement with externals," he said.
"Trying to keep that motivation level up for externals when it's been a tough slog is a challenge. Multiply that across a number of homes all through the country and you've got a number of kids who might be struggling with motivation."
He said he was not sure how the pandemic would affect exam results.
"I feel a little bit like probably an All Black coach before a game - you don't know how well prepared they are until the whistle blows."
He said schools across the country had worked especially hard with Year 13 students and others who were planning to leave school at the end of the year.
Couillault said his school had provided more internal assessments than usual and the extra learning recognition credits would help mitigate the disadvantage caused by the pandemic.
The principal of James Cook High School, Grant McMillan, said it had decided to reduce the stress on its Year 11 students by removing NCEA level 1 as a goal for those who were not already close to achieving it.
Instead those students would work toward level 2 achievement standards and gain level 1 next year.
"So there'll be fewer students from our school doing exams at level 1 this year than previous years, but they're on a plan towards level 2," he said.
McMillan said the school's results in NCEA levels 2-3 and University Entrance had been improving and he expected that would continue this year.
"That's in part because of the way NCEA has been reshaped by NZQA this year being a covid year, and it's also in part because of the ongoing work we've been doing as a school to lift our students' achievement and in part because of the support we're getting from families and students," he said.
"Overall, our students' motivation towards exams is on par with where it usually is if not slightly better because for many students they realise how important these are and for a number of our students the credits they will gain through examination are pivotal to their qualification especially those who have had to change course or slightly change their future intention," he said.
Nervous and excited
Year 12-13 students at Auckland's Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate told RNZ they felt nervous about this year's exams. Though they expected they would pass their exams, they agreed the pandemic had affected their learning.
"It's affected it immensely. Just recently I finished all my internals so now I'm internal-free and I can study just for exams, whereas if there was no lockdown we would already have been studying for exams," the school's head girl, Mary Solovi, said.
She said after-school classes with teachers had been helpful, as was an after-school study programme for Year 13s that AUT ran at its Manukau campus.
Monika Fakaosilea said studying at school had been working well for her.
"Studying in school, we don't have any distractions like from social media and technology because there's a teacher there and they can help us along the way if we get stuck," she said.
Raymond Tutuila said he preferred studying by himself.
"Just being independent helps you achieve more in school, rather than being with friends which kind of subtracts you from your studies. With my group of friends, everything's hectic," he said.
The school's head boy, Taiala Mahe, said he too enjoyed studying independently during the lockdowns and his family was good at giving him time to study.
He said he was confident about his first exam this week, level 3 History, but the prospect of exams was still unsettling.
"It's pretty nerve-wracking, but with all the help the teachers are giving us and extra classes, it's all helping us settle the nerves and get ready," he said.
Ledwina Katuke said she was not feeling as stressed as she thought she would be.
"Sometimes I'll study with my friend, sometimes alone at home. I just make sure that I manage my time wisely," she said.
"My friend and I we actually took two weeks off social media and we found that it was helpful, so we extended the time off social media so we weren't distracted."