With high school students wanting to experience the same rites of passage as their predecessors, schools across the United States are getting creative about finding ways to stage an end-of-year prom that is less risky than the traditional version dance held in crowded gyms and ballrooms.
After a year of cancelled proms and improvised remote graduations, the pressure is growing for schools to return some of those traditions to pandemic-weary high school students as adult vaccination rates increase. According to an April national survey conducted by the Harris Poll, nearly four out of five parents of high schoolers think schools should do whatever they can to make sure students can have at least some form of prom this year, even if it looks different than prior years.
Schools nationwide have rallied to grant their wishes: Pulaski County High School in Virginia is holding a “non-prom” evening at the beach, and Affton High School in Missouri hosted a drive-in theater prom, to name a few. It’s a switch from last year, when proms were widely cancelled, and schools were shut down, to curb the spread of COVID-19. The caution was warranted: After-prom parties and graduation events in a handful of states last year were linked to some virus outbreaks.
After their school board would not approve a traditional prom, two Emporia High School teachers, Tonya Dall and Kaitlyn Just, were determined to come up with a creative alternative that would allow their students to make memories together before they graduated.
A ‘murder mystery’ wrapped inside a prom
“We wanted to make sure that our students were engaged, we wanted to make sure that they had fun, that it was something that was going to involve them,” Dall said.
That’s when they landed on a murder mystery set at a high school prom, with an Italian buffet dinner, local musicians, improv performers, and senior awards and prizes. Just hopes this year’s event opens the door for more nontraditional proms in the future.
“The best part about prom is more the people than the dancing,” said Emporia senior Christina Noble-Speedie, who had been looking forward to prom since she was a little girl after seeing it in movies and watching her older sisters attend one. She and her theater group wore color-coordinated outfits to the May 1 prom. The prom was held at a larger auditorium to allow for social distancing, and there was no dancing this year. To limit contact, students signed up for small group tables and were served food buffet-style to avoid contamination.
At Orange High School in Ohio, where coronavirus restrictions are looser, school leaders decided on a dance and dinner at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in downtown Cleveland, said Principal Paul Lucas.
Junior class president Allie Ahn said the new venue is “such a cool place to go.”
“It’s all going to be new, but hopefully it just leaves them with something positive for the end of the year,” Lucas said.
Hosting prom on the streets of downtown
In New York, Patchogue-Medford High School Principal Randy Rusielewicz decided it would be safer to host 600 students for prom festivities outdoors, along downtown Patchogue Village’s Main Street, which is lined with restaurants and small businesses. The school is collaborating with local businesses to make it a fun night of dancing and eating. They’re also working with local officials to close down Main Street so that the event is more exclusive.
“We’re trying to create that memory to try to somewhat make up for the things that they lost and to hopefully create a special moment that they’ll remember for a lifetime,” Rusielewicz said.
Senior Maddy Frascogna, who has taken part in prom planning, said the event will be school pride-themed and will feature a red carpet and activities like cornhole games.
“Now that we have this planned, it gives everybody something to look forward to. It’s such an amazing, optimistic feeling,” Frascogna said, contrasting it to the disappointment she felt when prom was cancelled last year. She has a burgundy sequined dress ready for the event.
Virginia’s Pulaski County High School will be holding its “non-prom” lakeside. School Board member Beckie Cox pitched in with other school board members, staff and administrators, and 50 students to clean up the Claytor Lake Park beach prior to the formal evening taking place on May 15.
“The students will be so thrilled to be able to get together,” Cox said, though it will be different from the prom her sons had at the school a decade ago. “I just can’t wait to see who shows up with the grass skirts or gets escorted in by boat.”
An ‘un-prom’ at a drive-in theater
In Missouri, Affton High School students escaped on April 18 into the world of movies for their drive-in theater “un-prom,” complete with concessions, a viewing of “Jumanji,” and a car decorating contest.
Principal Deann Myers wanted the students to be in an outdoor space while also having the option to get inside their cars if the weather worsened. She said the un-prom was filled with laughter, squealing, and air hugs, rare occurrences during the pandemic when students aren’t able to get together for fun events. Students attend two days of on-campus learning in separate cohorts.
“Kids were able to come as they were. They didn’t have to spend money on the expensive dress and hair and all of that. It took that out of the mix and allowed kids to just be kids,” Myers said.
“We missed the traditional feel as well, though,” she added. “It didn’t have the feeling of formality that kind of surrounds the end of a senior year.”
At Eastern View High School in Virginia, students attended a 1920s-themed dinner gala in large outdoor tents. There, students had their photographs taken, walked a red carpet, and watched a fireworks display. Because of coronavirus restrictions, the 200 students couldn’t be together at the same time and chose between coming earlier or later in the evening.
“No matter what our restrictions are, we still want to celebrate the class of 2021,” said Caitlin Wynham, a teacher who led the prom planning. “And nothing is going to stop us from doing that.”
Students plan their own proms
In some locations, students who have had their proms cancelled this year have taken the event into their own hands, not wanting to miss out on the milestone.
“Prom is just part of the high school experience, and I feel like we kind of got robbed of that,” said Desert Vista senior Michael Adamick, whose Phoenix school hasn’t planned a prom.
Adamick decided to plan his own, with a venue big enough to host as many juniors and seniors as possible, but without the school’s blessing. He asked parents to give him loans for the event in return for free tickets for their kids. About 750 students have already purchased tickets. Since masks are a normal part of life nowadays, Adamick chose a “Masquerade” theme. While the event will take place indoors, face masks will be mandatory, temperatures will be taken at entry, and hand sanitizer will be provided.
“I saw people about to miss out on one of the main experiences you have as a high schooler and I also saw it as an opportunity to help all my friends out and let them have that experience,” Adamick said.
In Plano, Texas, Prestonwood Baptist Church hosted a drive-through prom for those with special needs, who are immunocompromised. It featured stations with crowns and tiaras, gift bags with T-shirts and light-up necklaces, a photo booth, and Chick-fil-A lunch pickup.
“We wanted to provide them something special, we feel like this community has had so much taken away from them this last year,” said event organizer Nichole Huggins, the church’s director of special needs
Victoria Harrison, who was one of over 150 attendees, said she enjoyed putting on her crown, getting her picture taken, and seeing her friends. But she hopes there will be more dancing next year.
School ‘just hasn’t felt the same’
The must-do, end-of-year social event wasn’t for everyone, though. Even though her school hosted weeklong events in lieu of a prom, Jaden Adeyemi, a senior at Highland High School in Colorado, said she decided not to attend. “This year just hasn’t felt the same to me for sure. I don’t feel as motivated as I once was to attend school events and participate in things,” she said.
But Adeyemi said she’s looking forward to graduation, when she’ll finally be able to see her friends in person.
“To come together for that is going to be really exciting,” she said. “It’s just going to be a nice celebration, a good end to a very rough year.”