WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. – It’s been a long and stressful summer for Mike Parkinson, who has been working round the clock these past five months trying to ensure Oaks Christian private school in Westlake Village can safely welcome back students in person.
“In a word, overwhelming. We want kids back and we believe it’s best to have kids on campus,” said Parkinson, who serves as the school’s chief operating and risk officer.
Parkinson said his job was to transform the campus into a seemingly pandemic-proof learning environment, weighing the risks of what is currently known about the COVID-19 pandemic. He was disappointed when officials instructed middle and high schools to begin remotely in L.A. County.
“Everything that I see and everything our medical team sees says it’s safe for kids. The second part is the social emotional side of getting kids back in the classroom, which is crucial,” Parkinson said.
Since the safer-at-home orders came down in March, Parkinson said Oaks Christian has spent between $3 and $4 million on upgrading and virus-proofing their facilities, as well as hiring more staff.
“Most of the investments I had planned in our capital budget, we just had to fast forward it,” Parkinson said.
Oaks Christian offered Spectrum News 1 an exclusive tour of its campus transformation.
Outside the Middle School, five brand new modular units were craned in to expand the number of classrooms. Campus workers were busy installing big screen TVs for remote instruction inside the portable rooms.
“Our enrollment is going through the roof. So we had to bring in these extra classrooms to ensure we can still social distance and limit class sizes,” Parkinson said.
Inside every classroom, the school has installed brand new big screen TVs and Owl cameras that provide a 360-degree view of the room. Parkinson said they will enable kids who can’t come to school to experience a hybrid learning environment with the teacher back at the front of the class instead of on Zoom.
“We may end up with a student that isn’t feeling well. Or maybe a parent isn’t comfortable with having a student in classroom. So we have a hybrid option for them to really feel like they’re in school,” Parkinson said.
Oaks Christian is requiring masks be worn by anyone inside the school and has installed thermal cameras for teachers to check their temperatures upon entering and inside faculty lounges.
When students do get the green light to return to campus, they will also have to get their temperatures checked before being cleared to enter.
Parkinson demonstrated what that process would look like, with students being directed in a socially-distanced queue through a thermal check point prior to entering the main school area. If any student registers a fever, Parkinson said they will quickly be diverted to a separate modular unit designed as a quarantine area.
The cafeterias at Oaks Christian are closed, but if students can return to campus, Parkinson said they will be offered a boxed lunch they can order prior to the class day to limit interactions and the touching of surfaces. Water fountains were also replaced with water bottle-filling stations.
“You can see we have been preparing for several months now making sure that we have exceeded every expectation, every guideline, every recommendation,” Parkinson said. “That’s why we want students back so badly. Because we feel ready.”
Seeing the changes made Oaks Christian graphic design teacher and yearbook adviser Blanca Schnobrich change her mind about whether she felt safe enough to return to campus this fall semester. During the summer quarantine, she had many reservations.
“Personally, it’s been really hard. There were a lot of concerns about coming back, about whether or not this was going to be safe. Touching door handles, interacting with colleagues, because there are so many things we don’t know about this virus,” Schnobrich said.
Schnobrich lost her mother this past spring and now helps care for her elderly father. The risks of her actions weigh heavily on her daily.
“My dad is 86 years old so we as a family are trying to care for him. We’re trying to be very conscientious about what we’re carrying around, what we’re carrying with us. Whether we have the virus,” Schnobrich said. “But the administration has been outstanding with communication. Everything they’re done it’s been really reassuring.”
Despite the questions surrounding the future of the fall semester, both Schnobrich and Parkinson say they feel grateful to work at a school that unlike so many others in L.A. County, has the financial resources to take protective measures to the next level and ensure safety.
They hope to be an example of what a COVID-19 curriculum can look like.
“I feel very blessed,” Parkinson said. “Anything we can do to help others, we want to do it.”
Parkinson hoped that Oaks Christian would be able to qualify for a waiver to welcome back at least its middle school students, but last week L.A. County made the decision not to accept applications for waivers because the county remained on the state’s watch list of coronavirus cases.
“The CDC says it’s safe for young ones. The virus is not attacking them in any significant way. We’re just hoping for the chance to apply for a waiver,” Parkinson said, referring to the guidance issued by the CDC in July advocating for the safe reopening of schools.
For Parkinson this experience has been personal on many levels. He started as a volunteer at Oaks Christian and eventually transitioned from a corporate career to helping manage the school. His children graduated from Oaks, including his son Colby Parkinson who now plays for the NFL on the Seattle Seahawks. Parkinson said he thinks of his children whenever making his decisions on safety and well-being for the student body.
“I’ve got to go to the lowest denominator of safety. Because we don’t know everything. But I’m just so thankful for our parent and teacher community. We’re giving each other a lot of grace because everyone has different opinions,” Parkinson said. “I just feel blessed I get to make a real difference.”