After a wait even longer and more agonising than normal, Tamworth's latest school graduates have at last received the final school grades they'll ever need.
After spending both senior years under the shadow of COVID, the pandemic laid a final blow at the end of 2021, forcing graduates to wait an extra six weeks for their Higher School Certificate (HSC) results.
But on Thursday morning, Oxley High School student Anastasia Smyth was among tens of thousands to anxiously check her computer.
The Oxley student received an 99.7 ATAR.
"It doesn't real feel like I'm point 3 off 100," she said.
"I was a bit stunned when I first saw it, it didn't sort of click. The whole year I've been in class, I'd been making mistakes on questions and learning from those. It doesn't feel like perfection at all. I've done all this work and this learning and it's obviously paid off!"
She only needed an ATAR of 81 to study her chosen course of electrical engineering, in Sydney.
But armed with among the highest in the state, and probably the best grade in Tamworth, she's better prepared than most for university.
"I've had a great time at Oxley for the last six years," she said.
"The mark reflects the standard of teaching and all of the work of my teachers that have taught me. I couldn't have got the mark if it hadn't been for everyone who was around me at the time."
She was one of nine Oxley high school students on the HSC merit list, the most of any public school in the region.
Ms Smyth was also the only public school student in the region to achieve an "all rounder" result, getting a top band in 10 units of study, or approximately five subjects.
The uncertainty of the six-week wait driven by coronavirus still plagues many local students.
Calrossy Anglican School student Tamar Leivenson, doesn't know yet where she will be living for the next few years.
With an ATAR of 95.20, she's in range of getting an offer for a degree in her chosen field of medicine.
But without an early university entry offer, she is still in the unknown, just over a month before the first classes of term one.
"I won't know until first round offers and then second round offers for NSW students come out [in February]," she said.
"I'm hoping to stay in NSW, but I've applied in every state."
She was one of 50 "distinguished achievers" at the school, achieving at least one top-band result in a subject. The school also had three "top achievers", students who achieved one of the top places in one or more HSC courses.
Calrossy dux Sathimath Balasuriya, who was in the top band in every course he studied, is set to get a degree in the humanities, or arts.
With his ATAR of 98.6 he could easily study law or medicine, but he won't be changing anything just because he achieved an extraordinarily good grade.
"Your ATAR is just something that gets you into your passion. Say you get a really good one, you shouldn't change what you're working for," he said.
"Even if you need a number that's a lot less than what you have [to study your degree], you should never change your passion, because that's what keeps you motivated at the end of the day."
It's a perspective Carinya Christian School head of senior school Josh Davis shares.
The school did "quite well" in traditional academic terms, and Mr Davis estimated that over 10 per cent of the school got over a 90 ATAR result. Three students got over 97.
But on a "day where the world wants to define the kids by ATARS and by band sixes," he said it was other factors that would count in the real world.
"We would say that rather than being defined by the ATAR... success is defined by their character and their faithfulness," he said.
"The group we just had go through were just exceptional. They were so resilient. Despite all the stuff that was thrown at the them at the end of last year, they were such a pleasure to work with.
"That's why by the standards that are out there today, they did so well."
Many students told the Leader the coronavirus pandemic made things more difficult, or at least more complicated, in their final two years.
Peel High school student Zoe Stewart said the hardest part was trying to learn chemistry, without going in a lab.
On the other hand, the virus was a great leveller, with Sydney spending far more weeks locked down, she said.
"It definitely would have been easier to do it the way it was supposed to be laid out," she said.
"But we couldn't really do anything about that."
Rod Jones, principal of Peel High School said that he was "really satisfied" by the school's results, which were better than ever.
Mr Jones is set to retire within just two weeks.
He said the school's staff and students had gone to extreme lengths to overcome extra obstacles thrust in their path by COVID-19.
"It's incredibly pleasing for me, I'm very proud of them all, the way that they've just hung in there and did what we asked them to do," he said.
"And then see them have really strong careers to move forward to.
"Particularly for me, this is my last year it was great to see them all achieve what they deserve to achieve."
Farrer Memorial Agricultural High School student Zac Cooper plans to study commerce to help him open his own online car business in Wallabadah, selling utes, and farm vehicles in the heavy farming area.
With an ATAR of 87.5, he's packing his bags for Canberra's Australian National University.
Fellow Farrer graduate Tobias Kirk, who will use his 85.15 to study veterinary science, said the school's teachers had put in hours of extra work keeping in touch through Zoom and online, to help him get where he wanted.
"I actually got more homework done, working through recess and lunch," he joked.
Calrossy student Isabella Cameron beat out over 20,000 other students to place seventh in the state in biology.
Isabelle Burke was third in NSW in primary industries, narrowly beating fellow Calrossy student Sarah Bradfield in fourth.
The Armidale School had a pair of all-rounders on the merit list, Georgia Donoghue and Hudson McAllister.
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Politics, environment and energy journalist at the Northern Daily Leader. I also write about health, bushfires and occasionally music. I'm a Brisbane boy by way of Charleville and Hobart who now lives in in beautiful New England. Get me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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