“We’re Learning Resilience”: An Oral History of Venice High’s COVID-19 Experience

Reading Time: 11 minutes

In early spring of 2020, something was in the air—both literally and figuratively. For a good portion of the new year, news had been circulating amongst friend groups, families, and in classrooms about a mysterious, pneumonia-like virus ravaging southern China and parts of Europe.

For a while, the idea of this disease, now commonly known as COVID-19, stayed in those far-away lands. Here, we didn’t think much of it—for a while, it was chalked up as no more than the flu. 

 Then, something changed. All of a sudden, Americans coming home from the most affected areas of the world began spreading the disease in their communities. People were dying, and at alarming rates. 

The language surrounding this disease shifted as well, adding words and phrases to our vocabulary that used to hide in the margins of dictionaries. Amongst all of them, “pandemic” came to define an entire year—an entire era.

On Friday, March 13 of last year, many in the Venice High community thought that this era would mean no more than a two-week break from school. At the time, we didn’t know that we wouldn’t see our friends, teachers, and classrooms again for so long. 

We didn’t know that over 22,000 people would die in our county within a year’s time. We didn’t know that economic devastation would come to define our generation for a second time in this century. There was so much we didn’t know.

 As parents, teachers, students, and administrators living and working in one of the world’s largest COVID-19 hotspots, the variety in opinions and experiences are endless. 

To commemorate the one-year anniversary of LAUSD’s (and many other essential facilities’) shutdown, The Oarsman interviewed 17 members of the school community to help construct and reflect on Venice High’s collective COVID-19 experience.

Cast of Characters

Aiden Brady: Venice High freshman

Liam Brown: Venice High freshman

Dania Calzada: Venice High senior

Jesse Fabian ’20: Pre-nursing student at Mount Saint Mary’s University

Chaya Forman: Venice High junior

Gloria Gonzales: English teacher and sponsor of Knights and Ladies 

Principal Gabriel Griego: Venice High Principal

Chantel Hunter-Mah: Parent and Friends of Gondos President

Tim Liang:  Math teacher 

Raymundo Mateo: Venice High senior

Hiroko Nomachi: Parent, Japanese teacher and lead of WLGS magnet

Raquel Saenzpardo: Venice junior and cheerleader

Ariana Sanchez: Venice High senior

Lorena Santos:  English and Spanish journalism teacher and club sponsor

Renysha Scott: College counselor

Darren Scott: Venice High junior and former football player

Ann Watkins: Venice High junior and varsity softball player

Transition into Quarantine

After March 13, every member of the Venice High community had to transition from the traditional, in-person model of education to an entirely new one: distance learning. Through Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Suite, these community members have all adapted to our digital landscape differently.

Principal Gabriel Griego: “It’s been difficult because I’m the type of principal who looks forward to going out to lunch and nutrition on supervision. I look forward to going out to go to the games for the students. I love that part of my job.”

Ariana Sanchez: “The last thing I remember people saying to me was, ‘See you in two weeks.’ At first, I was craving to go back to school because there was a routine—getting up in the morning, going to school, and doing things after school.” 

Raymundo Mateo: “I remember hanging outside the track team room on the last day of school, thinking we will be back in two weeks to continue the season. Now, we’ve been here a year and those kids I hung out with that day are no longer at Venice.”

Chantel Hunter-Mah: “Around that time, none of us thought that COVID-19 would be as permanent as it’s proven to have been. We were all trying to figure out what was going to happen, and we just didn’t know. There was so much we still don’t know sitting here a year later.”

Raquel Saenzpardo: “The transition from in person to online was pretty slow for me. I didn’t think we would be online for this long, so at the beginning, I didn’t pay much attention to it.”

Renysha Scott: “I’m glad that quarantine began closer to the end of the school year. It gave us the opportunity to plan for the summer to make it as effective as possible for this school year. After the initial weeks, I just needed to figure it all out since this is what it’s going to be.”

Jesse Fabian: “It was hard at first, but doing it in high school prepared me for what it would be like in college. If I didn’t have that experience, I probably would not have succeeded straight off the bat in my first semester of college.”

Darren Scott: “Going from in-person to online learning has been a bit rough. It is definitely something tough to get used to, but I do feel a little more comfortable learning from home now.”

Chaya Forman: “At first, distance learning was something that worked really well for me. I liked being able to organize my time however I want. But then as time went on I became less and less motivated, and I think the idea of what regular school was just was pushed further and further away from my reality.”

Lorena Santos: “There’s definitely been an incline in participation from my high-achieving students. I think we just got used to the pace of things. But I have seen a lot of my struggling students go downhill.”

Saenzpardo: “I know I have to be engaged and prepared, but when it’s just you and the computer, it’s pretty hard to want to push yourself. Not having to do school work is easier now.”

Hiroko Nomachi: “We’re all just lacking face-to-face time; the being in the same room sharing birthdays, happy life events, sad life events. We usually did it as a group, and it’s really that piece of going to school that both the students and the staff are missing.”

Dania Calzada: “People that I used to talk to in school, I don’t talk to anymore. I lost social skills.”

Liam Brown: “There’s just no social interaction. I mean, there’s Zoom breakout rooms, but no one really talks outside of a class project that you’re doing or in breakout rooms. I feel like next year, it will basically be like making friends for the first time because nobody made friends this year.”

Tim Liang: “It sucks to lack that interpersonal interaction—it’s sad, but it’s good sometimes. Because you don’t physically have to be there, you can actually get the job done at home. I actually feel like I can do this, cause right now I’m just teaching. I’m not doing anything else—I’m just focused on one thing. I’m teaching.” 

Personal Experience with COVID 

Beyond the implications COVID-19 has had on our community members’ experiences in education, many of them have also been directly impacted by the virus’s medical threat.

Calzada: “First it was my mom, then my aunts, then me, then my grandma who got the virus. When I was sick, everything I ate felt like I was eating Gushers.”

Fabian: “I had cold sweats, chest pain, and no appetite. I lost five pounds by not eating for two whole weeks.” 

Hunter-Mah: “A fellow parent on Friends Of Gondos had a husband contract COVID-19 and be hospitalized for it. He was on a ventilator for over a month, and it was an extremely difficult time for their family.”

Mateo: “Me and my family got it, but for me, it wasn’t that bad. It just felt like a regular cold, but I think my mom and my dad were affected by it more.”

Fabian: “It was pretty bad. My family and I got it, and I was isolated in my room. Some people can heal faster than others, and if I heal quicker than my mom in the other room, I didn’t want to catch it for a second time and vice versa. Everyone has different symptoms.”

Nomachi: “I have heard and spoken with students, colleagues and staff members at Venice High School that have been affected by conditions of the pandemic. Many students have lost a loved one or had an adult in the family lose their job. As teachers, we have to help them reach out to get support resources.”

Forman: “I woke up with a fever and I got a COVID-19 test at my doctor’s office. I did indeed have COVID. Then after a few days I felt totally fine. I still had to isolate myself from my family, which was really hard for me.”

Fabian: “I would crack my chest because it felt like a ball in your back. It was like you had air in your back and you needed to crack it. I felt so weak and dirty.”

Leadership during COVID-19

In the past year, leaders on Venice High’s campus have had to adapt their methods of rallying the community together. 

Griego: “I’m very impressed with the success of our students during the pandemic. Our students’ grades are pretty consistent to how they were last year. Our teachers are doing a great job of engaging kids, and students are stepping up—our parents are expecting that with their children.”

Hunter-Mah: “With distance learning, a lot of parent involvement has been reactionary. A parent will notice something going wrong and will become frustrated with the non-responsiveness from faculty they used to be able to see face-to-face at school.”

Nomachi: “In some ways, we as lead teachers were able to be more efficient. We are able to meet more around the different issues that each committee meets up about without having to physically gather to hold a meeting.”

Hunter-Mah: “Because of that, I’ve become a voice for the parents. Oftentimes, they’ll come to a School Based Management or Friends Of Gondos meeting to raise their concerns to me, and it’s my job to connect them to the person best suited to address it. It’s been rough.”

Renysha Scott: “What I’d like to do is to have a couple of meetings with the students face-to-face, going by grade level. That way, I can get to know your personality within a couple of sessions.”

Santos: “The most difficult part of it is ensuring that all of my students have equal access to technology. I have students who have the whole shebang, whereas some of my students are literally in the closet, because he has multiple siblings and a lot of things going on at home.”

Things Learned from COVID 

The past year has provided much space for reflection and growth. 

Griego: “I’ve learned what great teachers we have at Venice, and the perseverance and motivation our teachers have alongside the flexibility is incredible. We need to be flexible with our students. We need to be flexible with our families and our teachers.”

Sanchez: “I got to go on a self-journey during quarantine. I learned things I wouldn’t know about myself unless I confronted them. I must admit that they were confusing and intimidating, but I’m glad quarantine gave me that opportunity.”

Santos: “We’re learning resilience, right? We’re learning to adjust. Sometimes, I have to scratch my lesson plans and say, ‘Well, that Nearpod lesson isn’t working, so we’re gonna do something else, and you all just have to bear with me.’ Resilience for sure.”

Darren Scott: “I have learned to cherish what you might take for granted about your everyday life. You never know when things could stop and change.”

Griego: “We don’t know what’s happening in our teachers’ lives—they may have kids at home or little ones that they have to make sure are on Zoom. We have to be flexible, understanding, and supportive.”

College Experience in COVID

Like many other things, applying to and attending college has changed radically since last March. Hear from a variety of perspectives about what it means to pursue a degree in the midst of a global pandemic.

Fabian: “Ending high school in a virtual format definitely helped prepare me for that in college. Being a first generation college student, it’s hard. It was a big drive for me to go to school, but it is also a lot harder when my parents think it’s easier because you’re online.”

Renysha Scott: “There are all these studies that support the idea that when students are not immersed in an academic environment when they’re at home, they don’t perform as well. And because you’re not immersed in an academic environment the same way, the graduation and retention are a lot lower—you have more distractions when you’re at home.”

Fabian: “I do volunteer work at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. They offered the COVID-19 Vaccine to me, and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna be around COVID patients anyway. Might as well, right?’

Ann Watkins: “Distance learning is setting me back in my pursuit of college and athletics in college.”

Mateo: “Now, I just show up to school, do my work, and just try to get the best grades possible, but it’s really hard to balance everything right now. At first it was alright, but now it’s impossible.”

Fabian: “College in general is very hard, but being a pre-nursing student learning online is a lot harder. Luckily, I got used to the Zoom format before starting.”

School Culture and Extracurricular Activities during the Pandemic

One of the hallmarks of the Venice High experience is participating in extracurricular and social activities. From sports and clubs to prom and graduation, almost everything has been disrupted—what impact has this had on our community? 

Gonzales: “I oversee the Knights and Ladies community service club with seniors, and all of that went by the wayside.”

Nomachi: “My heart breaks for all the students. Last year, we were able to make something out of nothing with the drive-by graduation parade. This year, it’s different.”

Mateo: “I really liked being on the track and cross country team, and I was always looking forward to those track meets. Now that we’re here, I can’t be involved in my team as much as I want to.”

Santos:  “I am a part of an organization called Mujeres de Maiz, and we are a group of women of color aiming to provide holistic wellness through education, programming, exhibitions, and publishing in order to empower women and girls through the creation of community.”

Watkins: “I definitely miss having a team, and having the structure of a school day, like going from classes straight to practice. It’s always been just school, sports, homework, dinner, and then like, relax, and it’s not the same anymore.”

Fabian: “We were all so surprised. Imagine being a senior and being told that we’re going to come back soon, then all of a sudden you graduate. You don’t get to see any of your teammates, a lot of your games get cancelled, you don’t get to say goodbye to your teachers, and all you get is a drive-through graduation. It was something.”

Gonzales: “I also really missed Grease Night this year, along with going to the basketball games and the football games. Really, it is the hustle and bustle of school that I miss the most. All the ways that students get to participate in campus life.”

Santos: “Every year in March, we celebrate Women’s HERstory month with a live art show that draws hundreds of people and we host a month-long series of events. This year, it will all have to be virtual.”

Darren Scott: “I do miss practicing with my teammates and being on the field, along with going to different places with friends after school.” 

Hunter-Mah: “My daughter and I watched my son’s virtual graduation—he had no interest in attending. She said that it was reminiscent of The Hunger Games, where they project your image on a screen after you die. It lacked in being a true culmination of four years of hard work.”

 Liang: “I was supposed to take students to Taiwan during spring break. We planned this right before COVID, and things happened to where we couldn’t travel out of the country. It wasn’t a normal activity, and it’s unfortunate that it happened to fall on the year of COVID. It was a big mess, though.”

Saenzpardo: “I definitely wished that we could have been able to finish our cheer season, but not only for me. We had seniors on the team, they never got to say a proper goodbye.”

Nomachi: “From the very beginning of this school year, my seniors, including my son,  knew that we may not come back to school for their senior year. I feel so emotional that they won’t be celebrated for all their hard work.”

What’s Next?

A year after COVID-19 onset, there are still so many questions lingering in the minds of our community. From concerns about the vaccine to reopening school sites, there’s much to consider. How do our community members foresee our next steps?

Liang: “I personally think that if the school opens tomorrow, my preference is tied with my soon-to-be five year old son. Right now, I just don’t feel that it is safe for him to go to [back to] school at an LAUSD kindergarten.”

Brown: “Even if we go back to school right now, we wouldn’t really do anything. We’d just be doing what we’re doing now except we’d have a higher risk of getting COVID.”

Darren Scott: “Honestly, I feel a little nervous about returning to school physically. I’ve gotten so used to not having to be too social because of online learning, but I’m excited to see my friends again.”

Watkins: “ So, I want to go back, but I honestly feel like it might be more beneficial to not go back until we can go back to normal. There’s going to be a commute again and you’re going to have to wear masks while sitting at your computer doing work. Instead, you can just be at home, not having to wear a mask, not having to waste gas and your parents’ time.”

Forman: “I empathize with the district and the teachers. This is going to be a nightmare to organize. So I think people like that could really benefit from going back to school if they have the transportation to get there. I think it’s worth a shot. I think it’s better than nothing.”

Aidan Brady: “If school reopened and was back to normal, where I could see my friends and go to different classes, I would for sure go back. I feel like we all need to see our friends and just, you know, not be stuck at home all day.

Fabian: “Do it for the people that you love. Do it for your grandma, your grandpa, the older people in your life—the people who have health conditions that can lead to possibly death. Do it for the future. Don’t let us be in this pandemic for two or three more years.”