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Zombies teach high school students a valuable lesson

OCEANSIDE — A zombie apocalypse befell downtown in the early hours of April 19, but Oceanside High School’s public service pathway students were ready.

As both surviving humans and a horde of zombies approached the school, a triage station intercepted them. There, they were diagnosed and assigned treatment — or a body bag — by students dressed in full HAZMAT gear.

Some of the surviving humans had to go through a decontamination process that included taking a shower.

A survivor would step behind a barrier to change into shower clothes in private, then would emerge and be scrubbed down by other HAZMAT-protected students.

Once the decontamination process was finished, those survivors went into safe harbor inside.

Even more students were on the roof surveying the area and calculating when zombies were on the move. Once they figured out the zombies’ point of entrance, they would radio down to the other emergency responders below to let them know where the zombies were coming.

The zombies were catatonic and not “attack zombies,” according to on-scene teacher Chandra Faist, so they moved slowly and made grunting noises instead of running and pouncing on prey.

That made things a little easier for emergency responders.

Faist is the coordinator for the Academy of Justice, one of the programs within the public service pathway at Oceanside High. The other two programs in the pathway include the Health Careers Academy and STEM Teach 2 Learn education academy.

Students from all three programs in the public service pathway were tasked with staging the school’s mock zombie apocalypse decontamination and safe harbor shelter to learn what to do in times of emergency.

While a zombie apocalypse is a far-fetched notion, natural disasters like fires, tsunamis and other emergency situations could actually affect Oceanside residents.

Students in the public service pathway are going into careers that will be called upon during those times of need, Faist said.

Oceanside High School recently served as an evacuation shelter during the Lilac fires a few years ago. The school was at its maximum capacity with 500 people (plus their pets) sheltered there.

This is the first year Oceanside High School has staged a mock zombie apocalypse event for the public service pathway students. Faist said teachers in the pathway brainstormed and came up with the idea.

“It’s giving them project-based learning of a hands-on nature,” Faist said. “That’s the best way for them to absorb the information — just learning out of a book or watching a film, they’re not going to learn it.”

Faist said all the materials, including the decontamination showers, medical supplies and HAZMAT suits, are real. Real emergency professionals were also on the scene.

Sophomore Madison Matella, a student in the Health Careers Academy, served as an incident commander during the zombie crisis. She was responsible for overseeing all of the different stations and making sure everything was running smoothly.

Matella had to do some problem solving during the mock apocalypse.

“Earlier we had a situation where we had some zombies walking around, and we figured out that there wasn’t clear direction of where people should go after they went to the medical station,” Matella said. “So we had to solve the problem by having escorts — who are in the jumpsuits — take people to the correct tarps or to the safe harbor depending on if they’re exposed or non-exposed.”

Students who acted as zombies had to go to the black tarp, where body bags awaited them.

Senior Damaris Rivas, who was part of the decontamination shelter staff, was tasked with helping those who were unsure about what to do.

Rather than tell them the answer outright, she asked them questions that got them thinking about how to correctly do it.

“If they get stuck, I lead them and get their minds on the right path so they start thinking about the right answer,” she said.

For example, she helped other shelter staff to properly fasten a splint on an injured survivor.

“They were actually tying it wrong, so I told them to check how they’re tying it,” Rivas said. Once the other students realized their mistake, “they were tying it the right way next time.”

Both Matella and Rivas said the exercise helped them learn how to set up and operate an emergency shelter during times of crisis.

“It’s been really good practice just learning how to adapt,” Matella said, noting that plans can and sometimes have to change to fit present needs.

“It’s also important to learn how to communicate because when you’re in a stressful situation like this, all the team leaders and all of the workers are under a lot of anxiety so you have to make sure everyone is calm and everything is running smoothly at all times,” she added.

Rivas said she could use what she learned during the exercise to set up a shelter during a real emergency.

“Now, I know how to set up a whole shelter, what we need, how many teams we need, how many members we need to keep it running,” she said.

Rivas also gained communication skills during the exercise.

“It also helps with my communication with the community because you have to help them through every single process and make sure they’re OK, make sure they’re fed, make sure they’re hydrated — anything they need,” she said.

That was the exercise’s goal: to give students a hands-on learning experience they would remember.

“These kids are going to remember for the rest of their lives, ‘I actually worked a decon shelter one time’,” Faist said. “Even though it wasn’t real, they still know how to do it now, so should something happen that is possible they’re ready to serve their community.”