by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

 and Kimberly Rivers

Senior year of high school is supposed to be a time when memories are made, bonds are forged and young adults embrace a carefree, youthful frivolity one last time before taking that big leap into the future. The graduation gift bestowed upon Ventura County’s Class of 2020 was a lesson in hard truths: In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools throughout California closed up in March, nearly everyone was ordered to stay at home and 12th graders looking forward to proms, picnics and other third-quarter celebrations saw those experiences disappear. 

Over two months since the lockdown, the county is starting to slowly open up. But large gatherings continue to be prohibited and social distancing still rules the day. In addition to a senior year that’s been curtailed — and marked by civil unrest across the nation in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd — graduates are forced to reckon with modified commencement ceremonies as well. The VCReporter spoke with students across the county to talk about what these last few months have been like, and what they’re looking forward to in the future.

Ryann Butcher, Buena High School

Ryann Butcher, Buena High School

As news of the coronavirus and its impact around the world made headlines, Ryann Butcher of Ventura said that she had a feeling Ventura County high school seniors were going to feel the effects, too.

“When COVID-19 first came out, me and my friends were telling our parents that we’re not going to have a graduation,” 18-year-old Butcher recalled.

She was disappointed, if not surprised, when school closed in March.

“This is it. There goes senior year,” she remembered saying to herself. “No prom, no powder puff [flag football] game… Through April, I was still really bummed out.”

Time has helped, however. “Now . . . it’s like, it happened and it sucks but we’re getting through it.”

Distance learning was an adjustment for teachers and students alike. Taking that into account, some schools (including Buena, Ventura and Foothill Technology high schools) decided on a modified grading model whereby senior grades earned prior to the closure would apply at the end of the year as well. Students would be able to improve grades, but wouldn’t be penalized with lower grades. 

According to Butcher, student response to this was mixed. 

“It’s pretty easy. I was fine with it,” she said. “I’ve been doing [online coursework]. But I think a lot of kids did it at first and then over time they decided, ‘this is lame’ and kind of stopped.”

Butcher has stayed in touch with friends via phone calls and text, and is looking forward to summer and the next chapter at Ventura College in the fall. The first semester classes will be offered online.

When asked if she’s happy now, Butcher replied, “For the most part, yeah. I’m excited for college, to go to a new school and meet new people.” 

Noelia Calderon, Nordhoff High School

Noelia Calderon, Nordhoff High School

“I come from a family where I will be the first one to graduate ever,” said Noelia Calderon, 18, of Ojai. “My parents were very excited and really looking forward to my senior year. It started off with all my friends, we had all these plans, homecoming and prom of course. Then the pandemic happened.” 

She describes that last day of school: “I clearly remember it.” Students thought they might be out of school for just a few weeks. “We didn’t really take it that seriously and said ‘See you in two weeks.’ I didn’t really say those goodbyes. I have friends going off to college who I might never see again.” Calderon will be staying local and attending Ventura College, starting a path to become a teacher. “You really have to take it one day at a time, you just don’t know what’s going to happen.” 

“It wasn’t until April, when it really sunk in. This is real and it’s not going to go away very soon. It might be a very long time. Obviously we were really worried about all the other people suffering in different countries . . . and we realized we are probably not going to have prom. I had already bought my dress. Well, I guess I’m not going to wear it. I was very sad, a little depressed. Yes, those are really big moments, but I wouldn’t have put my life or someone else’s life above that, just to go out and have a prom.” 

“Graduation was something I was really looking forward to. Then they announced it might be over Zoom. My mom said ‘oh my gosh, I hope that doesn’t end up happening, I really wanted to see you going across the stage and receiving your diploma.’” Calderon said she is grateful to the administration for the plans they’ve come up with for graduation, including walking across the stage to receive a diploma. 

“Even though we don’t get those experiences that we were looking forward to, at the end of the day, we still have the rest of our lives to look forward to,” she said.

Abigail de Vos, Newbury Park High School

Abigail “AJ” de Vos, Newbury Park High School

“When schools closed in March, my first reaction was to be afraid,” recalled Abigail “AJ” de Vos of Newbury Park High School. “There was a lot of worry and anxiety in me due to fears of not being able to have closure with peers, activities and my high school experience.”

De Vos had been looking forward to prom, grad night at Six Flags Magic Mountain and the senior picnic all throughout high school. As senior class board president, she would have been integral to the planning of these and other events, and she was “devastated” at their cancellation.

One unlikely bright spot: distance learning. While most students have had complaints about online coursework, de Vos said that, “At the start, I found it surprisingly enjoyable. It helped me stay organized and I felt extremely productive.” She also learned some new skills, like Zoom, which she’s used to stay in touch with family and friends. But as the weeks wore on, it lost its luster.

“It was very hard to stay motivated . . . Senioritis mixed with distance learning was not my friend,” she admitted. “But I have been powering through to complete my senior year strong.”

Being separated physically from friends has been challenging, but de Vos said that, “Ironically, we’ve been keeping each other updated on our lives even more than usual.” They send each other fun video presentations and hold weekly Zoom calls. In addition, she’s found the outdoors and the kitchen welcome distractions. “I tried a lot of new hiking trails, baking recipes and different ways to keep myself busy.”

De Vos will be attending Azusa Pacific University in the fall, and instruction will take place on campus. She’s relieved that her college years will not start the way high school ended. Like many, she’s craving a return to normal.

“I am looking forward to so much once the lockdown is fully over,” she said. “I cannot wait for the feeling of a movie theater dimming the lights . . . I cannot wait to go on a walk and not cross the street when I see someone . . . to ask a waiter how their day is going while out to eat with family. And of course, I cannot wait to spend my last summer at home with my best friends doing everything together!”

Seaanah Magaña, Oxnard High School

Seaanah Magaña, Oxnard High School

When schools closed in March, Seaanah Magaña at first “was feeling a little depressed because I was wanting to finish the year with friends and teachers.” She recalled all the activities she was expecting. “The Senior Goodbye Rally, prom and grad night, oh my goodness, yes, grad night! I was so sad about that, missing the activities.” 

She was disappointed not to have a traditional graduation ceremony and walk across the stage, but said that “One thing that is pretty cool is we made a senior footprint.” Seniors made a video of “all our memories throughout senior year.” And she is appreciative of the school planning the graduation ceremony, even with the restrictions. “They could have just mailed us our diplomas. But they took their time to do something for us, that means a lot.” 

Oxnard High School will have a car parade in the parking lot that lets all the graduates see and hear their fellow students getting their diploma covers on a stage. The community is also working closely with the Oxnard Police Department to plan a citywide parade in the coming weeks congratulating all graduates in the school district. 

Online learning was not a highlight for Magaña. “I wanted to be in class. I’m more of a touchy person and didn’t want to learn only through the computer.” But she realized that she may be doing some online learning while attending Oxnard College in the fall. 

“It’s like teaching yourself,” she explained. The assignments were given and it was essentially up to the students to figure it out and get it done. “It prepared us for that.” 

She plans to apply for Oxnard College’s police candidate program. “My dream is to be a police officer here for the Oxnard Police Department.”

Magaña said her mom has been very “strict with the quarantine,” but also imparted some wisdom. “This is history, it has never happened before. I’m living history, it’s probably going to be in textbooks. What happened with George Floyd, the riots, I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“During 9-11 I was in my mom’s stomach. In 2020 my graduation is when this whole coronavirus is happening,” she continued. “I was being made during a part of history, and now am graduating and going into adulthood in 2020, a part of history.”

Jake Pinuelas, Adolfo Camarillo High School

Jake Pinuelas, Adolfo Camarillo High School

“I was expecting the school to be down for two to three weeks, not the whole year,” said 18-year-old Jake Pinuelas of Adolfo Camarillo High School, part of Oxnard Unified High School District. 

The closure came at a particularly unauspicious time: Pinuelas was on the cross country and track team, and had only run a few races before the pandemic cut the season short. In addition, he had several Advanced Placement tests (physics, mechanics, electricity and magnetics, calculus and government) looming in May, and there was some concern that distance learning might hamper preparation efforts. Luckily, however, “Most of our teachers had gotten through most of the coursework before we left,” so during the closure, AP students focused on review assignments. Pinuelas said that he felt prepared by test time.

For other classes, though, “I personally did not enjoy an online system. I feel I work better in a classroom.” But he added that he felt that the school did the best they could under the circumstances. “I just want to emphasize my gratefulness to the teachers, administration and district for their commitment to a fair learning environment.”

The last few months were busy for Pinuelas. His grandmother had come out to visit from Texas right before the stay-at-home order, and has remained with the family since. In addition, they recently moved, and there was a lot of packing and preparation to be done on top of studying for his AP exams. Pinuelas hasn’t had a lot of downtime.

What free time he enjoyed was spent running and working out. Pinuelas leaves in July for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and he’s hoping to make it onto the track team there.

When asked if he’s disappointed to miss out on senior year activities, he said, “I’m not one for grad night or graduations . . . that’s not my thing. But it’s been disappointing to not see my friends these last couple of months.”

If social distancing restrictions are lifted, Pinuelas is looking forward to going out, seeing friends and maybe even “seeing a movie at a movie theater. Kind of have a sense of normal.”

He plans to participate in Adolfo Camarillo’s modified graduation ceremony, more for the sake of his family than anything else.

“I don’t really see the purpose in getting photos with a face mask on . . . but I know it makes my parents happy.”

Donny Robbins, Adolfo Camarillo High School

Donny Robbins, Adolfo Camarillo High School

“The big thing with the virus is the lost senior activities, prom, after prom, grad night. Prom doesn’t really bother me. I was planning on not going,” said Donny Robbins, 18, a resident of Ventura who is graduating from Adolfo Camarillo High School.

He’ll be studying data science at Marquette University in Milwaukee in the fall. He said missing prom “makes for a great excuse for my kids someday. I get to tell them I couldn’t go because coronavirus canceled it.” 

All classes have been conducted through Google classroom with assignments being given out each Monday. Robbins said some classes were better online but others were not as effective. “For AP calculus, learning in the classroom is better.” He said all three sections of calculus were “thrown together” and he preferred the smaller groups in the classroom. But for his AP statistics class, the online option resulted in fewer students. “A lot are not showing up for live classes. That meant the students who did sign on had more time with the teachers . . . I think that really helped me prepare for the AP statistics test.” 

As for how the stay-at-home orders have impacted him personally, Robbins explained that he’s pretty comfortable with spending time at home. “I’m introverted, and don’t go out so much. So things are not completely different for my free time. I can still do almost everything I want to from home. The biggest thing I’m missing is ultimate frisbee with my friends. I really wish I could go to the movies.”

As for graduation (which took place June 2 and 3), Robbins understood the way it had to be: “We get in our caps and gowns, have a photo op with our family, the principal, and then a drive through to pick up our diplomas . . . It’s probably the best that they can do. The leadership at our school does really care and put in all their effort into it.” 

“I don’t really need a big graduation. I’ve pretty much moved on,” Robbins continued. “The biggest loss is for my family. They really wanted to go to the graduation.”

Ashlyn Valles, Adolfo Camarillo High School

Ashlyn Valles, Adolfo Camarillo High School

As Associated Student Body (ASB) vice president, Ashlyn Valles said that, “When I’m in the classroom . . . I feel most at home. Going from all that contact to nothing at all was tough.”

She was disappointed to miss all the special events that mark a graduating senior’s life — particularly prom. She already had her dress, and she’d envisioned dancing with her friends and making special memories.

“I’m a sentimental person,” she admitted. “I have three memory boxes.”

Her home life was uncharacteristically sedate during stay-at-home orders. Coming from a family with five children, she was used to a house full of siblings and friends. Valles stayed in touch with pals via weekly FaceTime chats, but noted that, “The house is so quiet now!”

The ASB organized weekly GChat hangouts where Adolfo Camarillo students could share their thoughts and fears about the pandemic and the school closure.

“We have some people thriving, and some people having a tougher time,” said Valles. “I think it affected people differently. But we would tell them, ‘we’re all in this together.’”

Between classes, school activities, ASB duties and friends, Valles was used to being very busy. She had a lot of time on her hands during the closure, and tried to put it to good use.

“I always try to look on the positive,” she said. “I am very close to my family . . . I was able to get even closer to them. I’m crafting, painting, writing . . . I tried to pick up some new hobbies and outlets. I just tried to make the best out of it.”

“This is not at all what we thought would happen,” Valles said of these last few months. Even so, she felt that teachers and administrators did their best by the students. For Adolfo Camarillo High School’s graduation ceremony, every student has been assigned a time when they can walk across the school stage (in cap, gown, and mask) with family members (up to 5 people total) for diploma pickup and photos. 

“It’s just going to be different,” she said. “I think everyone has tried to make this as memorable as they can.”

Valles had a message for current and future high school students.

“You never know — anything can happen, anywhere, anytime. Don’t take a single memory or moment for granted.”

Carlyn Walker, Ventura High School

Carlyn Walker, Ventura High School

For Carlyn Walker, news that Ventura High School was going to close initially came as a relief. 

“At first, I was excited to have the time off,” she said. “As long as we can go back to school, I was okay with it.” 

Walker thought the closure would only last a few weeks. When it was announced that there would be no in-class instruction for the rest of the year, however, that’s when the disappointment set in.

“I was upset — that’s when all the senior stuff was,” she said, noting that she’s sad to miss out on the senior picnic, awards night and other celebrations. “It took probably until the beginning of May for me to finally accept that I wasn’t going to have a graduation.”

Walker had more reason than most to feel discouraged. A former foster youth starting in the third grade, she and her brothers were separated and bounced around several foster homes throughout Ventura County. She has a twin brother attending Pacific High School and living with a grandparent, and an older brother now in Santa Barbara. Walker currently lives with a friend in Port Hueneme. Throughout her tumultuous childhood, school was a refuge.

“School was the only normal place for me,” Walker said.

She relished learning and today is a straight-A student taking college prep, honors and AP classes, and has been accepted at UCLA (she hopes to become a veterinarian). She’s missed the social interaction and more personal aspect of classroom learning. While she has completed coursework online, she’s not a fan of the format.

“I knew I was going to hate it,” Walker says of distance learning. “I hated it from the start and I still hate it . . . It sucks because online is right out of a textbook.”

Walker was also disappointed at the idea of a virtual graduation, and hadn’t planned to attend. Now that Ventura Unified School District (VUSD) has organized a ceremony to take place at City Hall, she’s reconsidering.

“When it was the online graduation, I wasn’t going to do it at all,” she said. “Hopefully [the ceremony] will be better.”

She is looking forward to seeing her friends over the summer before everyone disperses to their respective colleges and other endeavors, and the eventual end to the pandemic-induced lockdown.

“I’m hoping I can spend my last summer with my friends and not worry about what’s happening,” she said. “It’s going to be hard to leave.”

Of course, she’s not even sure, at this point, if she will be going onto a campus: UCLA has not yet made an official announcement regarding fall 2020 classes. 

“I was excited to go to school, but now I don’t know what’s happening,” Walker said. “It’s a big question mark.”

Thomas Weldele, Foothill Technology High School

Thomas Weldele, Foothill Technology High School

“I could not believe the schools were closing,” recalled Thomas Weldele, 18, of Foothill Technology High School. “I still thought of COVID-19 as too far away. It was just surreal.”

The coronavirus wasn’t the only thing on Weldele’s mind. His mother was diagnosed with cancer right around the same time.

“It was hard for me to adjust,” he admitted. “To have the schools close made me realize what a danger it was . . . Mom was immunocompromised . . . It definitely added a lot of stress.”

Weldele did talk to one of his school counselors, which was helpful, but credited his friends with getting him through some tough moments.

“What helped me a lot is that I have a solid group of friends and they were always there to support me,” he said. His mother is doing well; she has since finished treatment and has even returned to work.

Coursework was a welcome distraction, but a lot less fulfilling than it had been in the classroom environment. It was hard being away from his “amazing” Foothill teachers and being challenged academically. Weldele did his online classes dutifully, but admitted that, “I put a lot less effort into it.”

“We used [online learning software] Edgenuity,” he explained. “I was <em>not</em> a fan, at all. The classes were easy and kind of basic. It became a chore to do school, when before I’d always looked forward to it.”

Weldele, who plans on studying physics at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, in the fall, is still awed by how unusual his last semester of high school has been.

“I just think it’s super odd. I still can’t believe this happened,” he said. “Everything was great . . . getting to experience the last few months of senior year with your friends,” and then the pandemic changed everything.

He plans on participating in VUSD’s modified graduation ceremonies, but “I feel like you won’t get the same range of emotions” from it.