When Madeleine bought her prom dress, she saved the extra material to make a bow tie for her date. Even though prom was cancelled last year, she hoped things would be better by the spring of 2021. But the pandemic stretched on, limiting the size of gatherings, which means she can’t bring a date to prom. Now, the extra dress material is being used to make a matching mask and the dream of bringing a date is being left in the back of the closet.
The graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 have missed so much because of the pandemic. At some schools, spectators weren’t allowed at sports events and student athletes were left to compete in front of empty bleachers. Other schools have a tradition of letting seniors skip the first few hours of their first day of the school year to have a senior breakfast instead, but that was lost to the pandemic, too. Homecoming was a no-go and school dances were largely pushed to the sidelines. Everywhere students looked, the typical markers of the American high school experience were being swallowed by the pandemic.
But many students held out hope – surely things would be okay when it was time for prom this year, right? They crossed their fingers and made plans but as the pandemic stretched past the one-year anniversary, it became clear that prom would again have to be outright cancelled or entirely rethought.
Madeleine, an 18-year-old senior in New Jersey, said her school’s prom plans are constantly evolving as New Jersey state guidelines change. As of now, the plan is to have a formal casino night instead of a prom dance. Students will wear their prom dresses and tuxes but they aren’t allowed to dance because of social distancing precautions. Instead, the student council is looking into bringing in poker tables, a hypnotist, and other activities. Students will have to stay masked through the night. The student council has sent out surveys to see what the class wants from the night but their hands are tightly tied by the pandemic — there are only so many COVID-safe options.
Madeleine knows many of the students in her class aren’t excited by the prospect of the casino night — she’s disappointed herself. “I’m definitely losing the iconicness of going to the dance and having a date,” Madeleine said. “I’ve always dreamt of going to prom and now I’m going to this event where I can wear my dress but it’s not going to be what I got my dress for. I never would’ve pictured this.”
Rebecca, who is a senior and student body president at her Arizona high school, is trying to figure out a way for her class to celebrate prom after their school district said they’re not allowed to have any kind of prom affiliated with the high school. Now, she’s looking into throwing a backyard or warehouse prom that is planned and executed by students and not officially connected to the school.
“Being sad isn’t going to make [prom] come back,” Rebecca said. “We just have to be like what can we do instead? That’s the best way of coping with it.”
Although prom is historically a junior-senior class event, Rebecca is thinking of opening her prom up to any student regardless of class because of how much they’ve all missed out on between winter formal, homecoming, and other dances. The plan is to keep everything as low-cost as possible: from choosing a budgeted space to having students DJ the music. If the cost is lower, Rebecca says, it’s more likely more students will come especially because with the economic downturn of the pandemic, the cost of prom tickets might be out of reach for some.
Anna Mueller, a sociologist at Indiana University Bloomington, sees parallels between teenagers missing prom and adults who have had to cancel their weddings or forgo funerals for loved ones. “These rituals give us comfort and meaning and benchmarks,” Mueller said. “ Rituals are magical moments in our lives. They mark transitions.”
As a sociologist, Mueller is studying the ways in which schools are trying to celebrate typical benchmarks like prom and graduation even in the midst of a pandemic, a process she sees as critical. “It’s important to celebrate or mourn or mark these milestones collectively as safely as we can,” she said. “We just have to balance public health with other priorities, including kids’ mental health and wellbeing.”
For Lily, a senior in New York, “senior year felt like a bust” almost from the beginning. Although her school was in-person at the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the situation quickly unraveled. A few times, there were “lock-in drills” where students would have to stay in their classroom and wait for an infected student or staff member to be escorted from the school grounds. The grades were separated into cohorts that would switch off being at school and being in Zoom class. Lily said she was separated from all her friends with the cohort system. She went to school on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other Friday while her friends were on the opposite schedule. After the cohort system was implemented, the decision came down that there could be no spectators at fall sports. Senior night for athletes was cancelled. Soon, fewer and fewer students were deciding to attend in-person school at all, instead opting for strictly Zoom classes. Lily was one of those — she didn’t see a reason to go into school and possibly make herself vulnerable to COVID when she couldn’t even see her friends. Plus, if she stayed home, she could sleep in longer and take naps during her free periods.
Instead of hosting prom at a mansion or yacht club like they do in normal years, Lily’s school is having the event on school grounds. Students will have to stay masked and distanced and are only allowed to bring dates from within the school. Students are discouraged — it feels like the entire point of prom is being erased. “The prom committee says no one will hear them out,” Lily said. “It kinda feels like the teachers and administration are giving up on us. They’re very blocked off to the ideas we have.”
Lily is headed across the country in the fall for college and says it’s heartbreaking not to be able to go to prom with her first boyfriend before she moves away — although she says none of her friends have dates either which “makes it better because then I’d have severe FOMO. And it’ll be kind of cute that we’ll be like girl gang vibes.”
For now, the plan is to have a pre-prom at one of her friend’s houses. Their dates will be there and they’ll get to take pictures together like it’s a regular year. But then they’ll split up for the night – the boys will go to their school’s prom and the girls will go to theirs.
“We’re going to meet up to take pictures but I don’t care about that,” Lily said. “I want the actual memory. I want something to hold onto.”