Portola High Closed Exactly One Year Ago – Today

Yes. We’ve been sitting in Zoom classes for nine months.

Irvine+Unified+superintendent+Terry+Walker+sent+out+the+email+officially+closing+Portola+High+on+March+13+at+12%3A45+p.m.+while+students+were+in+their+sixth+periods.

Ryne Dunman

Irvine Unified superintendent Terry Walker sent out the email officially closing Portola High on March 13 at 12:45 p.m. while students were in their sixth periods.

By Ryne Dunman, Portola High School

Distant. Unthinkable. The virus couldn’t possibly reach the United States. Not California. Not Orange County. Not Irvine.

And definitely not our school campus.

Friday, March 13, 2020.

On that day, Portola High exuded confusion. Dizzying rumors flew across campus. Friends and relatives from other schools flooded social media feeds with news of their districts closing.

“This is probably the last time I’ll see you all for a long time.”

Ms. Aldemir’s parting words were all I could grasp onto. We spent most of fourth-period Spanish chattering about recent waves of panic-buying in preparation for lockdown and LAUSD schools closing the day prior. Everything felt cinematic and surreal.

I was sitting in Ms. Truax’s sixth-period chemistry class when superintendent Terry Walker sent out the email that confirmed the staggering news.

“After careful deliberation, the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) has made the decision to close all IUSD schools and facilities effective Monday, March 16 with an anticipated return date of Monday, April 6,” Walker wrote. 

Thunderous applause rumbled across the campus. 

I feel like everyone started cheering. There was so much excitement. We didn’t really understand what was going to happen.”

— Catelyn Austin

“I actually remember it pretty vividly,” sophomore Catelyn Austin said. “I was in French class … and I was just like, ‘No way. There’s no way.’ I feel like everyone started cheering. There was so much excitement. We didn’t really understand what was going to happen.”

Wasn’t it just an extension to spring break? Wouldn’t school continue normally on April 6? During May at the latest? Surely by next school year.

After several weeks in limbo, students learned that Emergency Distance Learning would become an indefinite substitute to setting foot on the Portola High campus.

Prom, graduation, standardized tests, end-of-the-year fairs and galleries, sports games and the many other experiences that define high school flickered away, in sync with international pandemonium that never seemed to end.

“Unprecedented.” 

The word we have all heard and reheard too many times. But most everything else in the coming months was truly, remarkably unprecedented.

“I can’t believe it’s been a year,” principal John Pehrson said. “In one respect, it feels like it just happened. But on the other hand, to think of all of the things that we’ve gone through in the past year, all of the different changes, modifications, flexibility, challenges – to group it all together is just exhausting.”

After a summer of social unrest, desperation and inequities that scathingly polarized our community, the 2020-21 school year began from behind our computer screens. Graduating seniors were thrust into post-secondary life without an in-person resolution to high school, and incoming freshmen would miss out on the most cherished aspects of Portola High culture.

Students enrolled in the Irvine Virtual Academy faced a completely new curriculum from home, while hybrid students wandered onto an unfamiliar campus, sparsely populated with students and speckled with one-way arrows, desk dividers and caution-taped lunch tables.

The playful two weeks following school closures had descended into a draining year of monotony and Zoom-fatigue.

As time progressed, I got tired of being at home all the time and spending less time with friends because, as a senior, it feels like a waste of a year.”

— Natalie Yu

“As time progressed, I got tired of being at home all the time and spending less time with friends because, as a senior, it feels like a waste of a year,” senior Natalie Yu said. “And because art is one of my biggest passions, I do wish we were able to spend more time in class, and I really wanted to have an actual Fine Arts Week. Although we are still having one [online], it just doesn’t really feel the same.”

In a traditional setting, Yu would find herself working harmoniously alongside her peers with unlimited access to the brushes, palettes and other materials in visual art teacher Kearci Muir’s art classroom. Today, her artistic expression is constricted by the screen of her digital tablet.

“In class, you can tell, it seems like it’s affecting [freshmen] a little bit more, and then in a different way with the upperclassmen, it seems like senioritis is kicking in even earlier,” Computer Graphics teacher Grace Waldner said. “During this time, it’s been a focus of the VAPA department in general, not focusing so much on learning a lot of different standards and getting right into the nitty gritty of giving it more as an outlet for expression and a relaxing space.”

The visual and performing arts department, a once-effervescent culmination of our school’s dancers, visual artists and musical performers, is just one of the many outlets at Portola High battered by virtual hurdles this year.

And yet students found the silver lining, maintaining annual student traditions like Irvine Talks, organizing online dress-up days and digital spirit activities, hosting virtual pep rallies and founding a record 133 school clubs, according to the Portola High Website.

Junior Alejandra Guio-Perez co-founded the Spanish Club for its first operational year, sharing her stories abroad and uplifting club members with 30-minutes of biweekly Spanish games and activities.

“In sophomore year, we pushed it aside – we weren’t ready [to found the club],” Guio-Perez said. “Junior year came, and with the uncertainty of everything, we were like, ‘Let’s just do it. Let’s do something that’s going to help other people and maybe for half an hour help them forget what’s happening around in the world.’”

Junior year came, and with the uncertainty of everything, we were like, ‘Let’s just do it. Let’s do something that’s going to help other people and maybe for half an hour help them forget what’s happening around in the world.’”

— Alejandra Guio-Perez

The fall sports season was riddled with restrictions, hosting far fewer competitive events, no spectatable games and non-contact team practices. However, as COVID-19 vaccines become more commonplace and cases of the virus finally begin dwindling with the onset of 2021, restrictions are gradually being lifted for school activities, including for the just-announced, in-person 2021 senior graduation ceremony and spring sports season.

“I’m just going with the flow,” Austin said. “Without football games and dances and not even being able to watch your friends play sports games, that’s one thing that was very different for me … but starting the games, starting the season has definitely made me feel a lot more at home in the aspect of my connection to school.”

Portola High’s closure is remembered with mixed emotions. But the past year has doubtlessly unveiled our resilience and togetherness as a community. 

Even with the unfortunate truth that life before the pandemic has dissipated forever, a new normal resembling its predecessor is approaching, and it’s almost within our reach.

Saturday, March 13, 2021. 

One miserable – despicable – transformational – remarkable year since Portola High closed.

Today is a new day.

This story was originally published on Portola Pilot on March 12, 2021.