Experience prom in the time of Covid-19
Story by Madeline Holcombe, CNN
Published 6:00 AM ET, Sat June 12, 2021
Just a few months ago, many of this year's high schoolers didn't know if there would be a prom to mark the end of another unusual year.
Among the devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a loss of some of the final moments of adolescence: gathering for football games, sitting in the lunchroom with friends and accepting a diploma onstage in front of loved ones.
But in a time marked by uncertainty and change, this phase of the pandemic looks a lot different than it once did. Vaccines are now available to adolescents as young as 12, and more than 50% of the US population has received at least one dose of a vaccine. The daily average of reported Covid-19 cases has dropped below 20,000 -- down from more than 250,000 in January, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
America's progress against the virus has brought back long-awaited milestones: weddings, baby showers, birthday parties, and for many students, a return of their end-of-the-year prom. While it looked different than most years, administrators said they worked hard to make it feel as much the same as they could.
"The thing about Covid is not only did we miss out on things, but we haven't been able to mark the last years of high school with any milestones," Kingston High School senior Morgan Halady said. "When I finally got to get out of my house ... I finally felt like a senior. I finally felt some of that closure -- like this is it."
CNN spoke to students from Conard High School in Connecticut, Lee's Summit High School in Missouri and Kingston High School in Washington State to see what a prom in a new normal looks like.
Most years, senior prom is a chance to get dressed up and celebrate a major transition surrounded by friends. But for this year’s senior class, it has taken on a much bigger meaning.
Whether walking into the Seattle Aquarium, as Kingston students did, or onto the school football field like Lee's Summit high schoolers, entering this year's prom venue felt like a victory.
Many students said they have been learning remotely all year and hadn't been with people their own age in months. And with more prom events opening up on short notice as gathering restrictions eased, some weren't sure they would go until the last minute.
“It’s a maybe for everything this year,” said Kingston senior Kylee Walker. “I wasn’t really sure if I was going to go just because this whole year has been really iffy.”
But even with loosened restrictions, many schools kept precautions in place. At Kingston High School's prom, students filled out yellow cards affirming their health status. They entered with their pre-selected groups of 10 and were given a wristband to mark their group. Upon entry, they all had their temperature taken as well.
For Halady, it was important not to let Covid-19 take away from her full experience. She selected a sequined, silver gown, perfected her eye makeup and searched with friends online to find masks that would compliment their vision.
"We kind of wanted to make it formal and match our gowns rather than wear the usual paper masks. With Covid, we've had to adjust to a lot. I feel that being able to wear that sequin mask, it makes having to wear the mask not feel like it's taking away from your night," Halady said.
But for others, an unusual prom called for a much more relaxed ensemble. Conard High School usually hosts their prom at an indoor venue but brought their prom outdoors to be Covid-19 safe. That change was met with another complication: unusually cold weather.
An hour before the event, Conard students were on their group Facebook page and got creative. To keep warm over their prom outfits, students decided to wear their college sweatshirts, senior class board president Chloe Scrimgeour said.
"I liked putting on the sweatshirt," said Sophie Capps-Hawkins said. "I like the dress up, dress down combo."
For entertainment, some events took a traditional route while others tried something new.
Lee's Summit High School found a way to make the most of their football field venue with yard games like giant Jenga and cornhole. Although not the traditional prom entertainment, Hannah Phillips said she enjoyed listening to music, surrounded by friends as they played games together in their gowns and suits.
Conard students stuck to dancing. At first, students were slow to join the dance floor. Except for Johnathan Casiano Jr., who tore it up from the start. But by the end of the night, Capps-Hawkins said she was dancing like crazy to "Cotton Eye Joe" and "Teach Me How to Dougie."
Dining -- the one activity that required the removal of masks -- took different forms at the schools.
For Kingston's prom, the meal stayed formal. Grouped by their wristband, friends who signed up to go to prom together were given their table right away. They ate a three-course meal and then stayed together at their tables unless they were out on the dance floor to reduce mingling.
“The prom was fully catered, so when we showed up our food was already there waiting for us,” Halady said. “Chicken on top of some mashed potatoes and asparagus -- it was yummy!”
At Lee's Summit, food was limited to pre-packaged chips, fruit snacks and drinks -- with the exception of an ice cream truck. The truck was there for most of the night and had more flavors than Philips said she'd ever heard of.
For many students working to plan this year's prom, the road wasn't easy. Arianna Fandozzi, Conard High School's prom chair, said that in September she wasn't sure if they could have a prom at all. Then their venue changed under Covid restrictions in January, and it wasn't until April that restrictions were lifted enough for all seniors to attend prom.
At the end of the event, the student organizers said they looked around and felt fulfilled seeing everyone together, laughing and having a good time, after such a difficult year.
"It wasn't what I imagined my senior prom would look like, but I don't think that was a bad thing," Scrimgeour said.