When schools closed their campuses in March due to the coronavirus, it meant high school seniors would miss out on the traditional year-end celebration known as commencement.
As the number of cases of COVID-19 rose, the staff and students at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village held out hope for an in-person graduation ceremony. What they got was a drive-by celebration May 28 on the school campus.
On Aug. 2, Oaks offered round two of the 2020 graduation: a drive-up celebration at the Ventura County Fairgrounds that allowed seniors to get out of their cars and receive their diplomas on stage.
Rob Black, head of school, said that, as badly as everyone wanted to participate in a traditional graduation ceremony last spring on the school’s Westlake Village campus, county health guidelines would not permit it.
“It came down to the point where we knew (restrictions weren’t) going to be lifted by the health department, so we started to look outside into other communities. It wouldn’t satisfy our community’s desire to be at home but would allow us to be together,” Black said. “We looked around in places like Santa Barbara County, Ventura County, and the only venue we found that could accommodate us on a modified basis was the Ventura County Fairgrounds.”
The fairgrounds allowed the event as long as most attendees stayed in their cars. Graduates were welcomed to the stage to accept their diplomas, but otherwise the ceremony observed all social distancing rules.
Black wanted the ceremony to be at the school’s Los Angeles County campus in Westlake Village while following Ventura County’s health order, which permits certain group gatherings. The waiver request was denied, and Oaks moved the event to Ventura.
“We’d asked L.A. County for a waiver to allow us to follow Ventura County’s health protocols because that’s really the community we serve,” he said. “The school is less than 300 yards from the county line.
“They said they have border communities all over, that we’re in L.A. County and we’ve got to comply with them, which has been challenging for us because the (virus) numbers in our area are incredibly low.”
Since the end of school in May Oaks has been looking into how to educate its students safely. The school had planned to reopen its middle and high school campuses Wed., Aug. 12 and follow an education road map that included both on-campus and digital learning, but Gov. Gavin Newsom later ordered that California public and private schools remain closed for the time being.
Matt Northrop, associate head of Oaks Christian, said the school is prepared for a semester of remote learning, but is also ready to bring students back to campus as soon as permission is granted.
“We’re working hard to create the 6-foot social distancing, to meet the requirements as far as masks, when they have to be on and when they don’t. We’ve worked at how to give students food so they don’t have to go to the cafeteria,” Northrop said. “We’ve built additional classrooms in portables to create more social distancing.”
Northrop said Oaks staff has reduced class sizes to about a dozen students to allow for greater social distancing.
As an added measure, the school has installed cameras in every classroom so that if a student is in quarantine they can still participate from home using the camera feed and a video-chat connection.
While they’re waiting for the state to allow resumption of in-person education, Oaks Christian staff has changed the online schedule to four 80-minute classes a day.
“Our classes are typically about an hour, but that entails a lot of movement from place to place, and whether that’s done through Zoom or in person it’s hard to do that quickly. If you talk to any student for more than 60 minutes on the same thing, you’re going to lose their attention and their focus,” Northrop said.
“You have to be really intentional at changing the mode of learning every 15 minutes. There’s a bunch of different ways and models. We’re training our teachers to be prepared so they’re making the best use of those 80 minutes.”
In addition, teachers typically receive five days of instruction in preparation for the upcoming school year, but now they’ll get three extra days to bring them up-to-date on the various ways they can use Zoom and other digital tools to keep their students engaged during remote learning.
“We’re just really hoping we can get our students back on campus as soon as possible. The teachers want to see the kids; the kids want to see the teachers. We want to get back to normal but do it in a safe manner,” Northrop said.
“We’d like to be able to move pretty quickly. What we’re talking to the teachers about is being ready to pivot in 24 hours. There’s a lot that goes into that. We can’t guarantee it, but that’s our goal.”