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‘One chance to bring everybody together’: Free State, LHS to hold outdoor prom events with COVID-19 precautions



TOPEKA, Kan. – In a year that has been anything but normal for Lawrence’s two high schools, students at both Free State and Lawrence High are making sure the 2021 senior class will end its time at the schools with one of the most traditional events.

Next month, both schools will hold their annual proms, which will be some of the first major student-organized events since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

This year’s dances will look a little different from the past. But holding the events at all is a big deal for the students, who haven’t had many opportunities to organize social activities because of the pandemic. Organizers for both events said most of their classmates were excited for the possibility of a dance.

“The fact that we haven’t had anything social this year has broken all of our hearts,” said Izzy Byrne, a Free State senior and student council member who helped organize the school’s event. “This is our one chance to bring everybody together … and we’re really trying to make it the best it can be.”

Both schools’ events will be held outdoors to allow for social distancing and will only be open to the senior class. They are scheduled for the evening of May 1, with May 8 serving as a backup date in case of inclement weather.

Student council leaders for both schools organized the events, which has historically been the norm for prom. The difference this year was that the students had to take public health orders and school policies on social distancing into account. Despite these challenges, the students were able to figure it out and received clearance from district and public health leaders to hold the events.

The district wanted the students to have a say in the events, and it’s confident that their plans will allow for a safe celebration, district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said.

“They considered all of the important aspects of hosting a safe and fun event,” Boyle said. “Our seniors deserve to celebrate their accomplishments. We are extremely proud of their perseverance this year.”

Hadley Bird and Donnavan Dillon of LHS worked hard to make sure the events would allow for social distancing by offering more than just a standard dance, Bird said.

Their event will have a Hollywood theme, including a red carpet entrance to the school’s concourse area between the main gym and the west gym. But when guests arrive, they will have their temperature taken, and everyone will be required to wear masks.

The plan combines a standard dance with games and activities that are normally part of after-prom parties. Dillon said having a variety of things to do would make it less likely that everyone would congregate in the same part of the concourse area.

Bird said she was “overwhelmed” when the district approved the plans.

“I didn’t think they were going to approve it so quickly,” she said. “But I think they know that it means a lot to seniors having kind of a horrible senior year online and not being able to see friends,” she added, referring to the fact that much of the school year was conducted through remote learning.

Meanwhile, the theme of Free State’s prom will be “Under the Stars,” which Byrne said was appropriate given that the dance will be outside in the school’s parking lot. It will also require the use of masks and have temperature checks at the entrance.

But instead of letting students spread out freely, the Free State event will mostly have guests assigned to pods, where they will be able to mingle with their dates and set groups of friends. A diagram of the pod layout shows about 20 pods — spaced 6 feet apart from one another — for the groups of guests.

Sara Roszak, a Free State organizer, said the idea to use pods came from one student’s mother. But Roszak said the guests wouldn’t have to stay in their pods all night long. She said the plans would allow the pods to go to the main dance floor in scheduled groups.

Even when they’re not on the main dance floor, there’s nothing stopping the students from dancing, Roszak said.

“They’re definitely encouraged to dance within their pods,” she said. “I know my pod is going to be going hard the whole time, so that will be fun.”

While neither dance will look exactly like a traditional prom, Dillon said the students were just happy to have a prom at all.

He said last year’s seniors watched their high school careers end unceremoniously, with prom being canceled and graduation happening months later with tight restrictions.

“Those seniors were super sad about that because they didn’t get to end high school with a bang,” Dillon said. “And I know a lot of people were afraid of that this year.”

Now that proms are scheduled and safety plans are in place, the organizers hope the guests will enjoy themselves as much as they can and celebrate the end of a challenging senior year.

“I just really hope there is a lot of energy there and people will be excited to be there, knowing this is our senior prom and this is all we’ve had all year,” Roszak said. “We worked really hard for it and we really want it to be a good time for everybody.”