Attendees of the Roadium Drive-In watch the movie, Back to the Future, in Torrance, Calif. on Friday, June 7, 2019. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

As school districts around the county struggle with safely reopening to students amid the coronavirus pandemic, they first want to figure out how to honor the outgoing class of 2020. And, there are no easy answers.

Students and parents at a handful of South Bay high schools thought they had a genius idea for a physically distant graduation ceremony—hold it at Torrance's Roadium Drive-In.

Not so fast, said the LA County Department of Public Health officials.

The county health department has specifically discouraged end-of-year activities, even those in vehicles, according to a COVID-19 update letter sent Friday, May 1 to South Bay educators from Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools.

That means no car parades, no drive-ins.

And that's a huge disappointment, said Suzanne Seymour, president of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District's board of education. Seymour said students at both Peninsula and Palos Verdes high schools were looking into the idea.

But, even 400-500 cars inside the 15-acre Roadium Drive-In with families tuned in to a special radio channel listening to commencement speeches and musical performances doesn't provide enough physical distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

County education officials, who are working on a task force with district leaders to develop a reopening schools framework, say it's just all too tempting for the students to want to get out of the family car to socialize with their friends.

"Such gatherings may be difficult to ensure the safety of students and families," wrote Duardo in her memo to county educators. "It is safer for everyone to stay home."

Education leaders, wrote Duardo, should encourage their school communities to make other arrangements and maintain physical distancing as much as possible.

So for now, the Roadium, one of about 300 outdoor theaters still operating the nation, is not the answer to the graduation dilemma.

The drive-in, opened in Torrance in 1949, is currently a 480-stall, open-air swap meet seven days a week. It, along with other businesses, closed on March 19 when the coronavirus arrived on the scene.

The last two summers, Roadium has brought the old-fashioned, outdoor theater experience back to the South Bay on Friday nights. Its 2020 summer movie season was set to open on May 29 with the classic movie, "Rocky."

Oscar Ruiz, a Roadium spokesperson, said he had six or seven high schools place serious inquiries about using the drive-in for graduation.

Graduation is totally doable, said Ruiz, as an FM radio transmission can reach cars parked in the outdoor theater across a one-mile radius. And, he said, projecting non-copyrighted video content from the high schools is easy by simply connecting a camera.

Of course, every decision about reopening—even summer movie Fridays—hinges on the county department of health, said Ruiz who said he is taking clues from the city of Torrance.

"We're still waiting on the city to let us know if we're able to open up," Ruiz said. "We don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. We're open to their suggestions and, of course, there will be some restrictions."

For third-party events, Ruiz said, the cost to rent Roadium is about $3750 for about 3-4 hours. That includes the projector, a projectionist and staffing. It doesn't include the licensing fee for a movie, if, say, schools wanted to present a feature film to celebrate the graduates. That'll cost about $400 depending upon the popularity of the movie.

In Manhattan Beach, Superintendent Mike Matthews said they are keeping an open mind about graduation for their 662 Mira Costa High students. Things are happening very fast, said Matthews, and as Gov. Gavin Newsom begins to slowly open the economy and local businesses begin to ramp up, Matthews said staff is keeping all commencement options on the table.

"We're all going to need to super flexible," Matthews said. "and if an opportunity presents itself, we can jump on that."

Contact Lisa Jacobs or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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