The City of Carpinteria flew flags for the seniors graduating in the year of the COVID pandemic. | Credit: Odessa Stork

Seniors in high schools everywhere are reeling from the abrupt end of their final semester as COVID-19 stands in the way of traditional graduations and celebrations. For many, the pandemic will be remembered as the defining event of their high school experience. For the Class of 2020 at Carpinteria High School, however, seniors had already experienced disaster.

They were sophomores when the Thomas Fire scorched 281,893 acres of land in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in December 2017. The fire and the deadly mudslides that followed displaced members of the student body and faculty, as well as the campus itself.

Dual Disasters and Trauma

“The fire was literally burning behind the high school,” said Mandi de Witte, a biology and environmental science teacher. “I remember my husband and I driving to school because I was scared school was going to burn down.… And it was so sudden, and I think most of us had never experienced a school closure like that before, [so] it was harder to wrap our brains around what to do about the students. The timing was weird, too, because it was right before finals.”

The dual disaster caused Carpinteria Unified School District to end the fall semester early due to the fire and start the spring semester late due to mudslides.

Alitza Gonzalez recalled how it felt to return to school: “I was very grateful that the teachers were very supportive,” the 18-year-old said. But anxiety lingered in everyone’s minds, even after school started up again.

“There’s [a] lingering post-traumatic stress that makes it really hard to just be relaxed and focus on school. The Thomas Fire and the mudslides especially were very harrowing, [and] it took us months to recover from that. And I don’t think we completely recovered, because this year, any time there was a rain, we all felt anxiety,” said Jeremiah Sobenes, an English teacher at CHS for 24 years. “I think [we’re all] just on edge and feeling really vulnerable and insecure in our personal lives.”

Students took classes online due to COVID concerns, and Carpinteria High underwent cleaning and repairs.

“I hear kids mentioning [the fires] in class; they’ll say it kind of in passing, like, ‘First the floods [or] first the fires, and now this?’ so it’s still in their minds in some level,” Sobenes said.

For Ian Reed, 18, the school interruption of the Thomas Fire pales in comparison to those caused by today’s deadly pandemic. “They do kind of go hand in hand, but I think the coronavirus is heavier,” Reed said.

Administrators were eerily prepared by the fire to spring into action when COVID hit. “In a way, the fire kind of prepared us to be disaster-ready,” de Witte said. “This time around, I kind of saw the writing on the wall with how bad it was getting in New York.”

Learning Goes Online Only

In mid-March, the school fully transitioned to online learning within a week. CUSD followed California Governor Gavin Newsom’s statewide guideline suggesting that end-of-semester grades should not be negatively impacted after mid-March school closures. At CHS, students working to raise their grades are the only ones who will see a grade change at the end of the year.

De Witte said that virtual attendance in her environmental science and Honors and AP biology classes has remained at about 80-90 percent. “We’re really trying to stay on top of students so no one falls through the cracks,” she said. One of the school’s biggest triumphs in the switch to online learning was their effort to set up each student with a Chromebook laptop and an at-home internet connection. CUSD worked with Cox Communications to ensure that all students who qualified for free lunch at school would also be set up with free internet through the end of the school year and into the summer, including families who don’t have working internet at home.

Even so, students struggle with motivation, focus, and the myriad of other challenges that come with trying to learn at home amid a global crisis.

“A lot of them have bigger problems: They’re trying to help their family out with their business or they’re doing childcare at home while their parents are still trying to work,” Sobenes said. “I’ve had a lot of kids tell me that they’re trying to get their little brothers and sisters to attend Zoom classes and do their homework.”

Sobenes has seen attendance drop from 85 percent down to 20 percent in his 12th-grade expository reading and writing class. 

According to Reed, “Some people haven’t really done any work; some people have done a lot of work and are raising their grades.” Across the board, students said their motivation took a hit when classes went virtual.

“I mean, they try,” Gonzalez said of her peers. “But I know they’re not as motivated as they would have been if we were in school.”

The consequences of the pandemic go deeper than the challenges of online learning, though. Traditional end-of-year celebrations like prom, Senior Week, and graduation have been canceled, and many students have had to change post-graduation plans that they have spent years working toward.

“[COVID-19] kind of pushed me to commit to going to City College instead of going to a four-year [university] as I’d always expected of myself,” Gonzalez said. “My parents, right now, aren’t really in the financial position to be sending me to a four-year college. That was a little bit the case before this whole outbreak happened, but [COVID-19] kind of pushed that idea more forward.”

College Aspirations Derailed

Alejandra Ceja, 17, faces a similar situation. Ceja, who moved from Mexico to Carpinteria with her family at the age of 6, will also be attending City College despite being admitted to a four-year university. “I’ve always known life isn’t easy, and recent events [have] shown me that it really isn’t easy. But I know that if my community and I can go through a huge destructive fire and landslides, we can and we will recover from the pandemic. We just have to stay positive,” she said.

Reed is attending Biola University in the fall, but he said he’s also considering City College as an option if fall classes get moved online.

For all three students, hope, positivity, and the strength of the Carpinteria community behind them has made all the difference as they push through this uncertain time.

“I’ve just been trying to look forward to furthering my education. I’ve been really looking into my classes at [City College] and trying to find resources,” Gonzalez said. As a first-generation high school graduate, attending a CHS graduation meant more to Gonzalez’s family than most, but she says she’ll make up for the missed milestone by putting even more emphasis on her college graduation. “It will be like, the special graduation for me,” she explained. “It will kind of be a little bit of my high school graduation but also my college graduation.”

“I think leaning into the help of your friends and teachers is really key,” Reed said. “I was part of FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes]. We’ve tried to have Zoom meetings once a week or once every two weeks to just kind of stay in touch.” 

Looking ahead to the future, the students have each other, their school, and their community to fall back on.

“I’ve spent my whole life growing up with everyone here and just getting to love this town,” said Gonzalez. She’s gone to school in the CUSD system since kindergarten, something not at all uncommon for kids in Carpinteria’s small, tight-knit community. The seniors are not only connected to each other but to the schools they’ve called home during their most formative years.

“Because they’ve gone through this together, especially with the fire, I think that brought them even closer to school because we were kind of like a safety net.… Some students’ houses burned down or they were displaced, so when they finally got to come back to school it felt like home a bit,” de Witte said. “They’re very connected to school.”

Ceja said she’d entered high school imagining it’d be like High School Musical: “Boy was I wrong. But regardless of the challenges my community and the communities around me faced, we still got back up and pulled through,” she said. “This is life; things happen for a reason. And in my life, these reasons have taught me to not give up, learn from the lessons I encounter, and understand that this is just the way it is and to adapt to what I face and will face, and things will be okay.”


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