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High school proms are back — but with adjustments for COVID-19

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Rose Menichini, 18, tries on her freshly altered red prom dress at Spring Cleaners on April 30, 2021. She's a senior at York High School and bought the dress for the 2020 prom, which was canceled due to the pandemic.

CHICAGO — Since the arrival of COVID-19, a shiny red satin prom dress has been sequestered in 18-year-old Rose Menichini’s closet, patiently awaiting its debut at the York High School prom.

Now, after more than a year of isolation, the lonely prom dress, and its owner, are ready for their close-up — not in a gymnasium or reception hall, but on the running track outside the Elmhurst high school.

The prom was originally planned for Chicago’s Navy Pier, which began its phased-in reopening Friday. But then school officials learned the venue at the pier they selected would not resume operations in time, leading to the alternate “Starry Night” outdoor celebration slated for May 15 at the York Stadium.

“We’ve all seen the Disney movies where the senior prom is the main event of high school, so this is kind of bittersweet,” said Menichini, who said dancing is forbidden due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the event will offer mini-golf, a photo booth and food trucks.

To be sure, like most everything involving the class of 2021, their proms and graduations this spring will be shaped by the pandemic. Some will prohibit dancing and eating. Many will be outside, with more than a dozen Chicago schools planning hourlong, mini-proms at Soldier Field. One suburban Catholic school will ask students to take a rapid COVID-19 test before they can enter the gymnasium. But after enduring more than a year of pandemic-related cancellations, in-person proms and graduations are finally giving the class of 2021 and their families reasons to celebrate.

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Essi Adokou and the senior council prepare PopSockets phone holders as they make graduation gift bags for fellow classmates at Baker College Prep.

At Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, two traditional proms with roughly 250 students each — one for juniors, another for seniors — will be held in the school gymnasium on May 27.

While those proms will include standard pre-pandemic fare like dancing and refreshments, students will be required to take a rapid COVID-19 test and wait 15 minutes for the results before being admitted to the festivities, school President Brad Bonham said.

Seniors who get a negative test result will also be eligible to participate in graduation, being held on the high school’s football field the following day, he said.

“We think this is going to be a wonderful experience for our students, who will be wearing masks and being as safe as possible,” Bonham said. “This past year has been so difficult for our senior class, and I’m so proud of how strong and resilient they’ve been.

Juan Carlos Rodriguez II, a senior at Mansueto High School in Chicago, said when the Noble Network of Charter Schools shut down last year, he was “really upset, because we were planning a Brighton Park multicultural fest, and the entire community was really looking forward to it.”

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Senior council members Symphene Destin, from left, Unika Valentine and Essi Adokou make gift bags for fellow classmates as they prepare for their upcoming graduation on April 27, 2021, at Baker College Prep in South Chicago.

This year, over two days in May, more than a dozen Noble high schools, including Mansueto, will host a series of mini-proms at Soldier Field, each expected to last 45 to 75 minutes, and giving scores of masked and socially distanced teens a chance to “promenade on the field” and snap photos against the Chicago skyline, according to the Noble network website.

While high heels are prohibited to prevent tearing up the turf, and dancing remains forbidden, Rodriguez — who was recently accepted to the University of Chicago — said he plans to wear a tuxedo and join his friends for “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

“This year, we’re not having a traditional prom, but at last we’re getting to celebrate with each other,” Rodriguez said.

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“Even though we won’t be able to dance or eat, we’re getting to walk on Soldier Field and look out at the scenery, which will be amazing,” added Pritzker College Prep senior Salvador Rosas, who plans to major in journalism next year at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Baker College Prep senior Essi Adokou, who volunteered to unpack graduation caps and gowns, and assemble goody bags at the Chicago high school on a recent afternoon, said after a year of strictly following COVID-19 guidelines, she’s still not certain if she’s ready to attend an in-person prom.

“A lot of people still haven’t gotten the vaccine, so I might just wait until our drive-thru graduation,” said Adokou, who was still deciding between attending Vanderbilt University or Grinnell College next fall.

Chicago Public Schools has also announced its high schools will have the option of having individual graduation ceremonies, either in person with capacity limits or virtual.

While the annual senior dance was shelved this year at Universal School in Bridgeview, Principal Aminah Murrar wants to ensure that as many students 16 and over as possible, as well as their families, receive the COVID-19 vaccine in anticipation of three outdoor graduation ceremonies in June.

The prekindergarten through 12th grade Islamic school was expected to deliver around 150 COVID-19 vaccines Friday to students and their families at an on-site clinic.

“We’re all trying to find a way to make this senior year special for our students,” Murrar said. “These milestones are very important to our students and their families, and if you’re missing out on getting together with your friends, it can lead to feeling very isolated.”

Some experts say the disappointment that legions of high school students have experienced during the pandemic is not merely adolescent angst over forfeiting social events with friends, but also reflects a deeper human need for public rituals that mark milestones on the way to adulthood.

“Rituals are about exiting one stage of life and entering another,” said Emily Navarro, a sociology assistant professor at Elmhurst University who said after the first prom in the U.S. was held at Yale University around 1850, by the early 20th century, the formal dance had become a deeply entrenched tradition at high school’s across the nation.

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Nurse practitioner Jennifer Burns vaccinates Zaid Alattar, 16, a student at Universal School in Bridgeview, on April 30, 2021, as the school tries to ensure all students 16 and older and their families receive the COVID-19 vaccine before graduation ceremonies next month.

“There are so many markers to adulthood that are very individual and personal, like moving out of the house, getting your driver’s license and your first sexual encounter,” Navarro said. “But when you have a ritual like prom or graduation, the community comes together to experience these milestones collectively. The Zoom events held last year did not have the same effect, because there needs to be a physical aspect ... like walking across the stage and the moment you switch your tassel to the other side.”

Rose Menichini of York High was waiting for alterations to be finished on the crimson prom dress she bought at a bridal shop more than a year ago, shortly before the school was shut down by the coronavirus.

While the outdoor, socially distanced prom in the high school stadium next month is not the elegant affair she’d anticipated, Menichini said she and her friends were excited to hear a bit of good news: There are no restrictions on their footwear.

“They told us we can wear heels, because they’re tearing up the track this summer,” she said, adding: “I think everyone realizes this is the best they could come up with, given the situation.”


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