‘Closest thing to normalcy all year’: Socially distanced proms bring joy after a tough year

Alyssa Smith’s pandemic prom looked nothing like the storied senior dances from movies and TV. Carefully applied makeup was concealed behind face masks and the dancing was constricted, limited to painted squares carefully outlined on a football field. Students spent intervals of the night snacking on pre-packaged, individual meals.

It was “pretty weird.”

But it was still magical, she said. The night gave her the chance to let loose, dress up and have fun with her friends — all together in one place. It elicited feels she hadn’t experienced in over a year.

“A lot of us were so focused on school this year, because we couldn’t really do anything else. So by having this prom, we were able to kind of snap back into high school and feel young, like teenagers again,” the Avondale, Ariz., teen recalls.

Alyssa Smith from Avondale, Ariz., had her senior prom in April. (Photo: Alyssa Smith)

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For many students, prom capped off a year of disappointments and missed opportunities. Homecoming dances and crowded football games were canceled, perhaps stinging the worst for high school seniors, who were simultaneously navigating the strenuous college application process. Prom didn’t “make up” for the trying year, but it was a special “last hurrah” for many.

“We didn’t have those little senior memories we were supposed to make,” Smith says. “But even though it wasn’t a traditional prom, it was definitely a experience to look back on and remember later.”

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‘The closest thing to normalcy all year

Prom is traditionally characterized by dinners, dancing and dates. Kailey Binkley’s modified prom still checked those boxes. Though the location changed from the school’s standard venue to account for the guest list of 160-plus, Binkley was still able to see everyone’s faces, take all the pictures she wanted and cement memories of her senior prom. 

“Prom is the one day out of the whole school year where you can dress up, feel pretty, wear too much makeup, spend all your money on a sparkly dress, and nobody can judge you,” Binkley says.

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These “small” hallmarks of a traditional senior event have alleviated some of the stress Binkley endured during the year.

“Prom definitely helped my mental health and gave me the satisfaction that we as a community are getting through this pandemic together,” she says. 

Smith almost forgot what it was like to “be a high schooler again”— the night served as a reminder. 

“My favorite part of my prom was getting to dress up with my friends again,” she says. Though she was looking forward to upscale food and glamorous venue, neither of which panned out, just taking pictures, hanging out and being goofy proved “relieving” after a difficult year.

Greta Poole from Roundrock, Texas, adds that just being able to see her friends was enough to get her excited for prom.

“It was really good to see people for once, since I felt very alone during the school year because most people were just at home,” Poole says, adding that prom reinvigorated a “sense of community” that had been missing. 

Finally something ‘to look forward to’

Simone Moales from Windsor, Connecticut, wasn’t expecting an in-person prom after missing out on semiformal, interscholastic dances and more. She was ecstatic and “pleasantly surprised” when her high school announced an in-person prom was on the agenda. Hers will take place in late May.

“This prom has brought a deeper value and connection for everyone,” she says. “It’s something that everyone wants to take part in. Everyone wants to celebrate together, because during these uncertain times, we never know when we’re gonna see each other again.”

For Anna Brent-Levenstein, prom later this month will mark the first time she’ll see all her friends in school since the pandemic. Due to social distancing protocols, her high school in Chapel Hill, N.C., implemented a model of cohorts, or pods. 

“I’m definitely spending more time thinking about this than I would’ve in a normal year, just because it’s one of the only things I really have to look forward to,” Brent-Levenstein says.

“It’s going to be nice being with the whole grade one last time before graduation day. That’s what I’m really looking forward to.”

All of these memories and happy sentiments happened thanks to the schools who made the most out of a “tough” situation, the students say. 

“My school made this special occasion happen during the midst of all of this, and they did it in the safest way possible,” Binkley acknowledges. “COVID has taught everyone some things, but it has taught us not to to take anything for granted. Live every moment like you’re about to get put into quarantine.”

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