Inside a virtually deserted school building late on a recent Friday afternoon, Principal Tom Baker wasn’t using the Saegertown Junior-Senior High School intercom but his message regarding upcoming student activities was loud and clear.
“The prom must go on,” he insisted. “We’ve taken so much from the traditional end-of-the-year activities — last year we had no prom, we had no formal graduation — this year, the prom is going to go on. It’s going to look different, it’s going to be different, but we’re going to have a prom.
“I’m looking forward to students being dressed up in formal attire, dancing the night away and having a good time,” Baker added.
The attitude is similar at high schools throughout the county: Proms and graduations are moving forward despite the uncertainty. Baker’s surroundings were emblematic of that uncertainty. His building wasn’t empty because the school day was over; it was empty because an unexpected COVID-19 outbreak and dozens of close contacts among students had forced a sudden switch to remote learning for the week.
With lessons like that in mind, end-of-the-year activities are not moving forward as they normally would, but with a variety of changes to location and format they are moving forward.
Seniors who had hoped to celebrate their prom in a ritzy hotel are out of luck, however, and for the most part so are any parents who had hoped to avoid wearing sunscreen for graduation. Most graduations are being planned as outdoor ceremonies. Proms are being held at the various schools or, in the case of Saegertown, at the elementary school next door. Cochranton Junior-Senior High School is a notable exception since the school’s prom will be held at Hotel Conneaut on May 8.
“It’s pretty much a normal prom,” Principal Don Wigton said, before adding that it was pandemic normal: Masks are required and the school is working with hotel personnel to enforce mitigation guidelines.
The disclaimers being issued by principals in PENNCREST, Conneaut and Crawford Central school districts are similar as well: All plans are subject to change, they stressed.
And the unpredictability of the pandemic, state-imposed restrictions, weather and even teenage behavior means that those changes could come at any moment.
“Prom’s up in the air,” Conneaut Area Senior High School Principal Dave Maskrey said. “We have it scheduled, we’re planning, but at the same time, if kids don’t cooperate, we’re just going to turn off the music and have everybody go home.”
Maskrey’s concern over cooperation arises from the different look proms will have due to the pandemic.
First of all, masks are required except when students are eating or drinking. There is no requirement, however, that masks and cummerbunds be worn in matching colors. There’s also no rule against it.
“I’m excited to see what some of these kids show up with,” said John Higgins, principal of Meadville Area Senior High School, which will hold its prom at the high school for the first time this century. “I’m sure it’ll be interesting. High school kids are very creative.”
Fancy restaurants are out of the prom picture this year too: Most schools are requiring that prom-goers eat at the school.
The restrictions have met with mixed receptions. When Saegertown announced in March that the prom would take place at Saegertown Elementary, the school also said it was restricted to the 47 members of the senior class as well. Amanda Crowl was one of those seniors and reported on the announcement for the school’s Panther Press newspaper, where she is editor-in-chief.
“A few are glad to have prom and are going, others are not pleased with that location,” Crowl said. “A few aren’t happy with having to wear a mask and the COVID regulations. A few aren’t going at all.”
Since the initial announcement, Saegertown has expanded the pool of eligible participants to include juniors and others, which means that when Crowl hits the red carpet at around 6:30 p.m. May 15, she’ll be strolling with her boyfriend, a recent Saegertown graduate.
“I was hoping we would have a prom, and I’m glad we are,” Crowl said. “I’m excited.”
Thoughts of making an entrance inevitably give rise to what happens next: dancing. The perennial subject matter of teen movies takes on new significance in the age of COVID-19. Will romantic couples be limited to line dancing this year? Will chaperones armed with yardsticks enforce state-mandated social-distancing guidelines?
“We’re working on that,” Cochranton’s Wigton said. Hotel Conneaut, where the Cochranton prom will take place, has allowed dancing for recent weddings and other events, he noted.
Prom season has been on the horizon for some time, and there has been no shortage of attention to pandemic-mitigation efforts.
Still, Wigton said, “We’re not getting a lot of guidance.”
The consensus among principals was a commitment to mask wearing and an expectation of social distancing. To what extent the reality meets that expectation remains to be determined.
“We’re telling them they have to be 6 feet apart,” Maskrey said, “but quite frankly I don’t know how to police that at this point.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.
Tentative plans for end-of-the-year activities at local high schools
Conneaut School District
Conneaut Area Senior High School
Prom will feature semi-formal attire and will be held under a tent in the school parking lot on May 22, according to Principal Dave Maskrey. Graduation will be held at the football field on June 10 with a makeup option on the following day in the event of inclement weather. As for guest tickets, “We haven’t gotten that far yet,” he said. “I’m thinking two tickets for Mom and Dad.”
Crawford Central School District
Cochranton Junior-Senior High School
Prom will be held May 8 at Hotel Conneaut, according to Principal Don Wigton. Graduation will definitely take place but whether it will be indoors or outdoors will depend on occupancy restrictions, which currently permit 25 percent of maximum occupancy for indoor events. “If the state is not going to increase inside capacity, we’re probably looking at outside,” he said. An indoor ceremony at 25 percent capacity would likely limit graduates to two guests each, he added.
Meadville Area Senior High School
Prom will be May 15 from 8 to 11 p.m. Principal John Higgins said that between 150 and 300 guests are expected. Activities will be spread out across the gym, auditorium, cafeteria and, weather permitting, outdoor tents, and will remain within the 25 percent occupancy limit. Graduation will take place on June 10 at Bender Field. “Having it outdoors will allow more people to attend and be a part of the graduation ceremony,” he said. “Right now, we haven’t confirmed this, but we’re looking at six tickets per student. Usually, it’s seven.”
PENNCREST School District
Cambridge Springs Junior-Senior High School
“We don’t want to turn this into a super-spreader,” Principal David Nuhfer said. “We’re doing our best to give them a fun prom and a safe prom.” To achieve that dual goal, prom will be held on May 15 at the school with a meal preceding the dance in the gymnasium. The school’s two courtyards will be put to use as well. Graduation on June 10 will be held outside as it was in 2020. “The kids seem to like it better outside than inside,” he said.
Maplewood Junior-Senior High School
Prom will be held May 8 at the school and will follow current guidelines from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Principal Ken Wolfarth. Graduation will begin at 6:30 p.m. June 10 if weather allows and, like last year, “will be followed by a parade through town.”
Saegertown Junior-Senior High School
Prom will take place at the school with a meal and dancing on May 15. Graduation will be held June 10. In a nod to the tentative nature of the plans, Principal Tom Baker said earlier this month, “As of today at 2:12 p.m., it will be a traditional ceremony in the auditorium in accord with all of the recommendations from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.”