In a perfect night of taffeta and glitter, the most perfect thing of all was Lauren Toon’s sky-blue prom dress.
Lauren’s mother helped her pick the sleek satin gown a year ago – blue to match Lauren’s eyes. Lauren planned to wear the dress at her high school prom last year when she was a junior, but school officials canceled the event at the last minute due to the pandemic.
And then in September, Lauren’s mother died of Covid-19.
Last weekend, Lauren finally got to wear the dress. The occasion: the senior formal at Merrill F. West High School in Tracy, southwest of Stockton in San Joaquin County.
“I wanted to celebrate for my mom,” Lauren said during a break in the festivities. “It’s very emotional. I haven’t cried yet, but a lot of other people have.”
Lauren wasn’t the only one feeling emotional at the event, held in the school’s central quad. West High’s outdoor, socially distanced “non-prom” was one of the few sanctioned, in-person celebrations for the Class of 2021 in California.
After more than a year of distance learning and hardship related to the pandemic, more than 120 seniors gathered in tuxedos and long gowns to celebrate the end of a year like no other.
Dancing was not allowed, but the event had everything else: a catered dinner, a DJ, games, photos, miniature golf, a caricature artist, balloons and streamers — all festooned with “Alice in Wonderland” decorations.
The student leadership committee planned the entire event, raising money, collecting donations and handcrafting nearly 1,000 Cheshire cats, Mad Hatters and White Rabbits.
For some students, the night was bittersweet. The celebration made them acutely aware of how much they had lost.
“I’m definitely really excited. And I’m so proud of our class. We’ve worked for weeks on this. It’s been such a long year, I feel relieved we made it,” said Marc Masana, a senior. “But I’m also kind of sad — with everything that’s happened, it feels like our senior year is incomplete.”
Like schools throughout the state, West High closed its campus in March 2020, and students learned remotely for more than a year. In April the school re-opened for hybrid learning, although some students opted to stay remote.
With a diverse, predominantly low-income student body, West High was hit hard by Covid. Many parents lost jobs or toiled long hours on the front lines, either as health care workers or providing other essential services.
Some students looked after younger siblings while their parents worked. Others got jobs to support their families while keeping up with remote learning. Many said they suffered sadness or depression while isolated from their friends and feeling disconnected from school.
And some contracted Covid or had family members or teachers who did. Lauren Toon’s mother, Christine Toon, was a popular special education teacher and volleyball coach at West High before she died. Another teacher-coach, Armando Tailes, got infected twice, spending five days in the hospital the second time and nearly dying.
Zachary Boswell, the West High principal, said the hardships and tragedies ultimately brought the school community closer. Younger teachers helped older teachers with distance learning technology, and everyone pitched in to solve problems. In the fall, the school held a gathering at the school for Lauren’s mom.
“We learned how to help each other in hard times,” Boswell said. “We learned a lot about collaboration, how to support each other. We’ve always been a relationship-based school, and that’s what really helped us get through this past year.”
Scott Benham, an English teacher and activities director, described the pandemic as “gut-wrenching and heartbreaking” for many students. Not only did they miss seeing their teachers and friends, but they also lost activities like sports, clubs, drama, pep rallies and dances — the heartbeat of any high school.
That’s why the senior formal was so important, he said. It was a chance to experience school spirit, if only for one night.
“The pandemic was brutal for so many kids. So, for our seniors, we knew this event was critical,” he said. “If we didn’t do anything, we’d be cheating them out of the high school experience.”
Students had jumbled emotions — mostly ecstatic but a little sad, too. In either case, they said they wouldn’t miss the event for anything.
West High senior Keona Siufana has a close-knit family and, as an introvert, said she was comfortable being home during the pandemic. But after months of distance learning, even she experienced a degree of loneliness, she said.
And she worried about her parents working during the pandemic, her father at FedEx and her mother in retail. Helping plan the senior formal was a welcome relief from a year of uncertainty, she said.
“I am super excited about the event and so thankful we’re able to do it,” she said. “But I guess I have mixed emotions because it means we’re all going to leave and become adults.”
For Izaiah Quiruz, a junior who served on the event planning committee, there was nothing bittersweet about the event. It was a hundred percent joy.
“I love being back at school,” he said. “I had some real low points this year. School is my second home, so tonight means a lot. It’s a step towards normalcy. To be out, see friends, have a meal, have human interaction … it’s just so nice.”
Tianna Staveris, a junior, felt the same way: The senior formal represented “pure happiness.”
Over the past year, several of Tianna’s family members contracted Covid, including her mother, who became seriously ill. Her father, a flooring contractor, was also out of work for a while. Quarantining at home was hard on the entire family, she said.
“It was especially hard when my mom was sick,” she said. “We’re really close, but I couldn’t be with her. I had to stay back. I hated it. … To be able to see everyone tonight is just amazing. I’m so excited to finally see some smiles.”
Raevyn Kaigler, ordinarily a straight-A student, was so sad being away from in-person school that her grades dropped this year, she said.
“I’m a social person, and for me, it was really difficult to be isolated from my friends,” she said. “But I learned I can handle more than I thought I could. I found some hobbies, and figured out distance learning and got my grades back up. … I think I learned a lot about myself this year.”
Seniors Gianna Uribe and Stella Hunt, heads of the planning committee, said their friendship got them through the year of distance learning, especially when Stella and her father both contracted Covid. After Stella recovered, she and Gianna would drive to the canal — an agricultural aqueduct that runs through Tracy — and watch the sunset and muse on the state of the world.
“It felt like we were living through history,” Stella said.
That sense of momentousness was, for them, the main reason to plan a senior formal, they said.
“We felt we needed to give people something to look forward to,” Gianna said.
Stella added, “If you’re in high school, the prom is a big deal. It’s the biggest night of your life. We felt we really had to make this happen.”
After a night of socializing and celebrating, West High’s Class of 2021 will soon part ways. Keona plans to spend next year on a church mission. Raevyn is working at Jamba Juice this summer, then heads to Cal State Fullerton to study kinesiology. After a summer working at Ace Hardware, Marc plans to study economics at Cal State Long Beach. Stella and Gianna don’t have concrete plans yet but will probably stay in Tracy and go to community college.
After her mother died, Lauren Toon decided to graduate early from high school — in December — and pursue a passion she and her mom shared: sports. In January, Lauren enrolled at William Jessup University near Sacramento, where she’s on the volleyball team.
But when school officials invited her back to Tracy for the formal, she didn’t hesitate. The chance to return to the campus where her mother taught, wearing the dress her mother chose, was a chance to pay tribute to her mom, she said. Lauren even wore her mother’s pearls to the event.
“I wanted to be here with my class,” she said. “I think that would have made my mom happy.”
One by one, students arrived at Lucerne Valley Elementary School this week. Before entering the campus, a staff member handed masks to students who needed one. They then had their temperatures checked as they made their way to their classrooms.
One of the first districts to reopen last August in a hybrid mode, the small district in Southern California’s high desert is now among the latest across the state where all 840 students through high school have the option to attend classes in person for five days each week.
The elementary school, as well as the district’s middle/high school, both fully reopened this week. Elementary students attend each day from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m, while the middle/high school students attend from 8:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. Next year, the district plans to extend the school day to its normal end time of 3 p.m.
Students like Colton Reichow, a 4th grade student, were excited to finally be back on a more traditional school schedule.
“I like it a lot about because I get to see a lot of my friends,” Reichow said. “Distance learning was a lot of trouble because I couldn’t see my friends, and I had to be in school for three hours a day. I couldn’t play with my brother.”
Before this week, Reichow and other students across the district came to school for only part of the week.
Reichow’s mom, Sarah Courtney, is also relieved to have her son back in class.
“It’s very exciting. I love it,” Courtney said about Lucerne reopening full-time. “They’re physically writing again, which is great because it seemed like that really suffered on computers. Just being back in class, they learn so much better.”
Reichow and his mother are participating in an EdSource project to follow families across the state as they cope with the pandemic.
Courtney, who also has a toddler, has had to juggle being a mother, at-home tutor and student this year studying to become a nurse. Like many parents, Courtney is ready to finally have some time back to focus on her ambitions, too.
“It will definitely be easier to study without having to worry the whole time what he’s doing or getting texts from his teacher telling him to stop making noises or focus,” Courtney said. “It’s hard to study when I’m helping him do his classwork,” she said, adding that math has been a particular struggle for her son in a remote setting.
Reichow is among more than 90% of elementary school students who have opted to return along with more than 80% of middle school students and high schoolers in Lucerne Valley.
Over the next two months before students leave again for summer break, staff at the district said one of their top priorities is to help students deal with the emotional upheaval they experienced because of the pandemic. Many students have spent much or all of the last year socially isolated. The district also plans to use the next couple of months to gauge learning loss as much as possible among students and begin intervening to help students catch up, Superintendent Peter Livingston said.
“Even though it’s a very short time, and our emphasis is keeping the kids healthy and safe, every second we have counts, and we’re going to make the most of every second that our kids are on our campus,” Livingston said.
“It’s a lot of fun seeing kids back. It’s rejuvenating,” he added.
Compared to when Lucerne’s elementary school first reopened in a hybrid mode in August, some normalcy has since returned.
Last fall, kids were forced to stay distanced at lunch and sit 6 feet apart. This week, up to six students were sitting together at tables outside during lunch. They conversed and appeared to be thrilled to be with one another.
Inside the 4th-grade classroom taught by Crystal Nelson, gone are plexiglass dividers that divided students last fall when classrooms were limited to about 10 to 12 students. Now, about 20 students are in each class and can be within 3 feet of one other.
Since the beginning of the school year, enrollment across Lucerne has grown by about 6%, mostly at the elementary school. Livingston said he suspects that new families moved into the district after they saw that Lucerne was among the first to offer some in-person classes in August.
Livingston said it wouldn’t have been possible to fully reopen the district’s schools this year if not for new federal guidance that reduced the recommended physical distancing requirement within schools from 6 feet to 3 feet. California has adopted that recommendation.
“That’s what truly allowed us to expand this reopening,” he said.
When the district first opened in a hybrid mode, students in some classes brought packets to school, worked on them during class and then took the packets home to continue working on them during their distance learning days. Students in other classes brought laptops to school and did their schoolwork on those.
Now, though, for students who are in school five days a week, the district has moved away from packets and laptops. Inside classrooms, teaching and learning is happening in a more traditional manner.
Nelson said her 4th-grade students were “ecstatic” to be back at school five days a week. Before this year, the summer break was the longest that students typically had gone without seeing their teachers and friends.
“But for these kids, it’s been a year for them since they’ve seen certain friends,” Nelson said.
Because of that, Derek Chip, who teachers social and emotional learning, said it will be important to be patient with students when it comes to their social behaviors.
In his classes, Chip said he focuses on different aspects of socializing, such as self-awareness, social awareness and responsible decision-making.
“I’m just reminding myself that these students got locked into this normative way of being where they were not socializing,” Chip said. “They’ve been sitting at home, a lot of them just by themselves, or with their door shut in the room for the majority of the day. I am reminding myself every day that we have to have more empathy, and we can’t get upset every time the students are not doing exactly what we want them to do, or maybe not interacting the way we want them to interact.”
Livingston said the district will also be giving local assessments to students and will use those to measure learning loss.
He added that the district is already planning to use additional intervention strategies next school year to address learning loss. That could include smaller class sizes so students have closer interactions with their teachers, as well as pulling more students out of classes for small group work.
“We have to fill in these learning gaps because they haven’t been in school,” Livingston said. “We need to see where they are. And we need to digest what it is that we’re going to have to really focus on academically in the 2021-22 school year.”
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