Masked And Footloose! Northeast Ohio High Schools Get Creative For Prom

Buchtel seniors Janiah Foster, Derek Martin, Franny Thomas, and Marcaja Turner participate in a prom planning session.
Buchtel Community Learning Center seniors Janiah Foster, Derek Martin, Franny Thomas and Marcaja Turner participate in a prom planning session. [Buchtel Community Learning Center]
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Once Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine gave the green light for in-person proms and graduations, Northeast Ohio high schools started planning big for seniors.

In some respects, teachers and staff are making up for so much of what the Class of 2020 missed out on last spring. Most students didn’t get to walk across a stage in caps and gowns to get diplomas and many unworn prom dresses are still hanging in closets. 

But the Class of 2021 has had it rough too. Many didn’t really have much of the senior year experience because they were in remote classes much of the time, away from friends and in-person milestone events. Even for students on campus, it was a senior year overshadowed by a pandemic. So staff at local high schools are working with seniors to create inventive end-of-year events – with masks required and COVID-19 safety precautions in place.

Strongsville High School celebrates the final days for the Class of 2021. [Strongsville High School]

There's also hope vaccines will help safeguard students and staff at these semi-public events. As of Wednesday, DeWine said nearly one-fifth of the state’s 16- and 17-year-olds have received a first COVID-19 vaccine shot, and school administrators are expecting many more will be vaccinated by the time end-of-year events come around.

Grid On The Dance Floor at Medina High School

Medina High School has a big senior class, about 550 students who needed to be accounted for during any of the end-of-year events. Accordingly, three prom plans were developed and approved by the Medina County Health Director, said Justin Brantner, teacher and student council advisor.

Based on current COVID-19 safety guidelines, prom will be held at the high school gym.

“Our gym facility is big enough to hold and socially distance all of the kids of the Class of 2021,” Brantner said. “In the past, it’s typically been a combo of seniors, and if they asked juniors, they could also go. We had to restrict the size to just the Class of 2021 this year.”

Medina High School's “Party at the Parthenon” prom is set for May 15. [Medina High School]

During prom, the students will be masked at all times, unless they’re getting water from the water table. There won’t be any food at the event – no sit-down banquet or buffet this year – in the name of COVID-19 safety precautions.

Medina High School partnered with local restaurants to offer prom specials to attendees, for those who want to have dinner out with a date prior to the event, said interim principal and Assistant Superintendent Kristine Quallich. 

“So that’s something neat that’s come out of this, I think, because the restaurants are already set up for social distancing,” Quallich said.”And it allows us to support them as well on that day. So, again, we're not having a meal, but this is kind of a nice way to start the night. We've kind of asked the kids to envision it as you can go out to eat with your date, you can take pictures with your date, but at prom you have to only come with your friends from school.”

As for what should be prioritized for the night’s event, Quallich said the staff left it up to the students.

“That's a good example where we were racking our brains about how do we essentially distance a line to do a photo booth? And the kids said, ‘We’re good, we don’t need a photo booth,’” she said. “But they care about decorations and they want to have music and they want to have dancing.”

School staff has come up with a creative way of allowing dancing while trying to encourage some level of distancing. The dance floor will be sectioned off into grids, with four students permitted per grid square. If a student wants to switch to another square, that student will need to communicate with students already there to make room and switch locations.

According to Quallich, other high schools are using the dance floor grid approach. And though Medina’s prom is less than a month away, plans could still change, especially if the governor’s COVID-19 guidelines change.

In previous years, Medina’s graduation was held indoors at the University of Akron. This year, Associate Principal Andy Brenner said it will be outdoors on the football field and each student will be allowed eight tickets.

“We have a fairly large stadium. And we said the only thing we really have to worry about is weather,” Brenner said. “The kids will be on the field. They will be socially distant. They’ll be wearing masks. We’ll have the stage with all the commencement people up there, the school board and the superintendent and so forth. And we will hand them their diplomas up on the stage.” 

Akron’s Buchtel Community Learning Center Is All In For Senior Week

Seniors at the Buchtel Community Learning Center, which serves sixth through 12th graders in Akron, will be have a “a prom, a graduation, a senior week, a senior day,” according to Nicole Hughes, Buchtel’s campus principal.

“We're covering for lost time!” Hughes laughed.

The optimistic senior student leaders came up with multiple potential proposals for prom and graduation well in advance of DeWine’s announcement greenlighting proms and graduations, according to school officials.

“So throughout this school year, my class officers were researching and planning, ‘OK, if the governor gives us this option, we'd like to have this type of prom and if the governor gives us this option, we’d like that the secondary type,’” Hughes said. “So it was phenomenal to see student leadership and self-advocacy really grow and take on a new lens during the pandemic, even though, of course, the circumstances were heartbreaking.”

About 150 Buchtel seniors will be allowed one guest each for the indoor prom.  All attendees will be expected to say masked and there will be no food.

However, according to Hughes, what students said will be really important to them is dancing, and she hopes that even the style of music the DJ plays will encourage distancing and COVID-19 safety. The school has even been helping students prepare their distanced dance moves.

“A lot of our families love some traditional line dancing,” she said. “And so we’ve even done a small senior activity on our campus where we did some line dancing in the gym. Everyone was in there, socially distanced, but they were having a good time,” Hughes said. “So those are just some of the precautions that we’re taking.” 

Akron Public Schools will be having a centralized graduation at the John S. Knight Center on the University of Akron campus. Hughes said it’s a large facility, so distancing can be accommodated and all attendees will be masked.  

Senior Class President Trayonna James said she’s excited for all the events.

“What excites me the most about prom and graduation this school year is the fact we actually get to have a real one,” James said. “With this pandemic nothing has felt normal to many of us students. Having the privilege to do actual high school activities, we have been waiting four years for, feels great,” James said. “One way I’ve been preparing is making sure all my fellow classmates understand that yes we are getting prom and graduation but we are also still in a pandemic so it is important that we follow guidelines to keep everyone as safe as possible.” 

The Ultimate Socially Distanced Dance Floor – Outdoors At Strongsville High School

Both prom and graduation will be outside for Strongsville High School this year.

Unlike years before, the Class of 2021’s graduation will be held several weeks before prom, as a COVID-19 precaution, said Principal Bill Wingler, adding that it’s better all the students get their diplomas than have to miss out on that celebration because they contracted the coronavirus at another mass event, like prom.

As for the prom, it will also be held on the football field which allows, according to Wingler, a lot room to dance.

“We have a DJ that is set up and half of the football field is going to be the dance floor,” he said. It’s the ultimate social distance dance floor because it covers basically about 70 yards wide by about 50 yards across. It’s huge. He’s setting up at the base of our bleachers, and we'll be projecting the music out.”

Strongsville's Class of 2021 will get their boogie-on on the football field at their outdoor prom, followed by a festival-style after-prom event. [Strongsville High School] 

Prom night and the after-prom party, which will also be held at the football field, will have a festival feel, complete with food and dessert trucks.

“We're going to have after-prom, which is going to include in our back field back there, they'll be inflatables. We're having a casino set up on the track,” Wingler said. “The football field will have a movie night. They'll be picture booths, food. I mean, there's a lot of stuff going to be going on.”

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