Secondary school principals are warning that this year might be shaping up to be the worst of the pandemic.
Principals spoken to by RNZ said two-and-a-half years of Covid-19 disruption had left many young people short of the motivation and credits they needed to get their NCEA qualifications.
Their warning came just weeks after the government announced a $20 million package to provide extra teaching and tutoring.
Qualifications Authority (NZQA) figures showed by 20 September schools had reported an average of 32.5 credits for each student, just 0.9 more credits than in the same period last year, 1.5 more than 2020, but 3.9 less than 2019.
The number of not-achieved credits reported to NZQA was also higher than in the previous two years.
Students need 60 credits to get the benchmark level two and three NCEA qualifications, but could get up to eight of those as "learning recognition credits" for learning they have completed but which was not assessed.
NZQA assessment deputy chief executive Andrea Gray said once learning recognition credits were factored in, students had earned a similar number of credits on average as students had in September 2019.
But Porirua College principal Ragne Maxwell said the cumulative toll of two-and-a-half years of disrupted learning was obvious and the stakes were especially high for teens in their final year.
"For a lot of those students, they are simply never going to get that final level or if they do get it, it's going to be through tertiary education rather than through school and I think this is a nationwide problem. It's particularly high in low socio-economic areas like Porirua and it's certainly impacting hugely on our students," Maxwell said.
While learning recognition credits would help many young people, the decision to let schools award the credits again this year came too late for some, she said.
"By the time they heard, quite a lot had given up," she said.
"For a number of students now, they've just got so far behind, no, that's not going to be enough at this stage."
Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate principal Kiri Turketo said the effects were worst among Year 13 students.
"You're talking about a particular cohort of students who have had two-and-a-half years of interruption so their NCEA has been sporadic and it's been up and down and it's had a mix of online learning and face-to-face, but it's been disrupted and we are now starting to see what that disruption looks like at this end with Year 13s in their final year," she said.
However, it was not only schools in areas of socio-economic disadvantage that were worried.
Albany Senior High School principal Claire Amos said the repeated absences that characterised this year had been more disruptive than the lockdowns of previous years.
"What we've had is rolling absences so we've had students that have been off for weeks at a time, they might have been isolating. Up until recently, they might have been home because family members had Covid and they had to isolate because of them," Amos said.
"So we've had students with really intermittent learning and really intermittent opportunities to gain the credits they would usually gain by this time of year, and so I know I'm amongst a number of principals who are deeply concerned that our Year 13s in particular haven't gained the credits they normally would by this point in the year."
Ōtāhuhu College principal Neil Watson said this year was "definitely worse" than 2020 or 2021.
"It's really challenging," Watson said.
"It does place a lot of pressure on staff and students to get over the line, and one of the things with level 3 and with UE [University Entrance] is it's more predominantly externally [exam] based and that requires depth of knowledge and understanding, and because students have missed so much school over the last two-and-a-half-years that's really impacting the preparation."
He believed learning recognition credits were not much help.
"One of the key things is how do we prepare our students for the next steps into further studies, into good jobs, and to do that those students need a good understanding of their topics, so handing out extra credits doesn't help students with their learning or their understanding. It's inflation basically."
Between struggle and success
Students at Porirua College told RNZ it was hard to stay motivated this year
"It's been pretty difficult for me because I lack motivation and I'm not that good when it comes to schoolwork," said Year 12 student Tion, though he admitted that his recent results had been good.
"I reckon if I don't pass this year, I'll be able to finish it off next year."
Fellow Year 12 student John said motivation was the biggest challenge.
"I feel like I'm in the middle of struggling and doing good," he said.
Another student, Dawt, said he was "a bit worried" about his progress.
But the boys did not feel the pandemic was an unfair barrier.
Tion said the disruption caused by Covid-19 made getting an NCEA qualification more significant.
"It would be more of an achievement for me, because I know I passed during harder times," he said.
"That's just life. When there's obstacles, you've just got to work hard to overcome them," John said.
The boys agreed that learning recognition credits were a welcome help.