Planning for modified proms, graduation parties and picnics is underway at some local high schools to ensure graduating seniors enjoy at least some of the usual senior rites of passage amid a pandemic that's stretched over a year. Seniors attending Menlo-Atherton High School's "Enchanted Forest" prom will have to go without high heels, as the masked outdoor event will take place on the Atherton school's soccer field. There won't be dancing at Los Altos High School's "Seniors Under the Stars."
Wearing well-fitting face masks, giving shorter commencement speeches and keeping 6 feet of distance between attendees are just some of the guidelines local schools will have to follow for safely conducting graduation ceremonies this year. Even with state guidance put out in March that bans handshakes and hugs at ceremonies, this year still offers more than the class of 2020's car parade graduations and canceled proms.
Other schools are more hesitant to put on big parties. Palo Alto Unified School District officials said there won't be proms or graduation activities other than formal graduation ceremonies at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools this spring.
Although Palo Alto schools plan to host in-person graduations, prom is off the table, much to the disappointment of some students and parents.
Paly and Gunn principals emailed parents on April 23 that the schools "will not be entertaining a prom or modified prom event this year" to ensure students "remain healthy and are able to participate in their graduation ceremony."
PAUSD Superintendent Don Austin said county health officials are reluctant to individually sign off on events. The health department's approach so far has been to leave the decision to hold certain events to school leaders' discretion, he noted.
"They (the health department) won't even entertain the question," Austin said. "As a veteran former high school principal and former activities director, I fully understand and empathize with the desire with everyone involved to have activities at the end of the year. Unfortunately that's not our reality right now ... We continue to prioritize in-person graduation and don't want to do anything to jeopardize that."
Some parents are trying to devise their own plans for a prom, which some students would choose to attend over a graduation ceremony, said Julie Dubrouillet, Gunn PTSA senior parent network coordinator. She hasn't been able to secure a venue for the event and noted that every venue seems to be waiting for June 15, when Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state's coronavirus tier system restrictions could be lifted.
Dubrouillet said it's not just the events that are gone, but all the little moments that come with it: a day to shop for prom dresses, "promposals," and the video reveal of the year's venue.
Gunn's PTSA Executive Council announced on April 25 that it won't be sponsoring an event because its insurance doesn't cover "communicable diseases," Dubrouillet said. Gunn seniors will graduate on the school's football field on June 2. Parents are in talks about planning it on their own without the backing of PTSA.
Gunn senior Madeline Siu, 18, recalls how there were a flurry of rumors about an "improvised senior prom" on the football field.
"It's a bummer," she said. "We got excited about it, we had our hopes up. But now I think we've all kind of reined back and sadly taken that reality check of 'things can't always be the normalcy.' At this point, I'm just really glad to have a graduation at the bare minimum."
Castilleja School, a private school for girls in grades 6-12 in Palo Alto, was able to hold its Fabulous Dinner Dance (FDD) for students accompanied by one of their parents on April 24, said Lorraine Brown, the school's director of communications and community relations, in an email. The event typically is open to all seven grades, but only included seniors this year to limit its size because of the pandemic.
"We wanted to honor our seniors who've missed so many of their favorite traditions in the past year, so we held FDD just for the Class of 2021," she said.
FDD included a dinner, slideshow of the students, and a dance performance by the parents.
"While everyone was distanced and masked, they still loved the chance to dress up, be together and celebrate," she said.
Mountain View and Los Altos high schools will use the PayPal Park stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team, for their ceremonies. Since the venue is large, graduates can invite more guests, who will be able to properly physically distance, according to LAHS Assistant Principal Suzanne Woolfolk.
In addition to graduation ceremonies, MVHS and LAHS will have their own themed proms.
Los Altos High's "Seniors Under the Stars" prom on May 15 will be held on the school's football field. So far 290 of the class' 500 seniors have signed up, Woolfolk said. The venue can hold up to 350 people. Although there won't be dancing, there will be a senior talent show. Students must stay in their assigned seats — they can choose who will sit at their table using an app — and can't mingle with other pods. Servers will bring food to tables.
"These seniors haven't had a chance to gather as a class at all this year," she said. "To be able to say hello and goodbye is something that is encapsulated in this evening. ... The seniors just needed a chance to be kids one more time before they graduate."
Prom will look a little different at MVHS. There won't be a dance floor for the carnival-themed event, which will take place on the campus' main quad and science quad, according to junior Dylan Leahy, 17, a member of the dance committee and of the school's Associated Student Body. There will be carnival games, mini golf, a DJ and food trucks. Unlike LAHS, Mountain View students will be able to move around.
Although the plan was to keep the event to seniors, organizers announced on Monday, April 26, that juniors can also attend the modified prom event. They've sold over 200 tickets so far and aim to sell 500.
"I think that this is a great replacement," he said. "Even if we had to compromise a little bit with dancing and stuff like that. ... It's going to be a really good last send-off and I'm excited about it."
M-A will hold its 70th annual commencement in person this school year after hosting a car parade-style graduation in 2020.
The graduation ceremony will take place at 4 p.m. on June 3 on Coach Parks, the school's football field, as it has in years past. Each graduate and two family members will be invited to attend in person, said Principal Simone Rick-Kennel in an email, and the ceremony will be streamed live. At 7:30 p.m. seniors will gather near M-A's gym where they will catch buses to a surprise venue for their graduation night celebration. Leading up to graduation, there will also be a senior picnic on the baseball field June 1.
Woodside High School will also have an in-person graduation ceremony. Seniors will graduate on Bradley Field as usual on the morning of June 4, said Principal Diane Burbank. It will also be livestreamed, she said.
Graduates are limited to just two guests. There will be a no-touch diploma pickup, no handshakes from the principal and no reception following the ceremony, Burbank said. To limit the spread of COVID-19, seniors will be allowed to keep their orange gown, cap and tassel at no cost, she said.
Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton is planning an in-person May 22 graduation ceremony. Similar to the Sacred Heart Class of 2020's "atypical" ceremony last year, the school plans as "traditional" an event as possible, said Elizabeth Nixon, the school's associate director of communications and public relations, in an email. It will include remarks delivered by the class valedictorian and salutatorian and a faculty speaker, and diploma distribution.
Officials at Menlo School in Atherton are working on in-person commencement ceremonies for both divisions of the school (Middle School and Upper School), said Alex Perez, the school's director of communications in an email. They are also working on designing a series of additional events that help to honor the class of 2021.
"Given the fluidity of changing protocols, what those events will entail is still a work in progress," he said. "However, our intention is to celebrate and honor this great Class of 2021."
The San Mateo County Office of Education's recent guidance declares that speakers may remove masks during their remarks as long as they are at least 6 feet away from other attendees and are advised to keep their comments brief to limit the time they are unmasked.
Senior Maya Kennedy, 18, is part of the leadership class planning M-A's May 7 prom and is eager to host the dance. This will be the Class of 2021's first prom, as their junior prom was canceled due to COVID-19. Students will be allowed to dance, but with masks on, she said.
"It definitely feels great (to be able to host the event)," she said. "I was on the prom committee last year planning that one; it was a bit of disappointment because we put a lot of time into that one. A lot of us haven't seen each other in now over a year. It will be nice to see everyone back on campus and together."
The soccer field will be decorated with vines and fairy trees for the "Enchanted Forest" theme, she said.
Charlie Smith, 17, a fellow senior at M-A, plans to wear a yellow-gold dress that looks similar to Belle's in the movie "Beauty and the Beast."
"This is probably one of the most unique proms ever," she said. "It just shows how my peers and friends have adapted to such unique circumstances; it's not every year that we get a masquerade ball as prom."
Michael Amoroso, the activities director at M-A, said he is "super grateful to honor this senior class with a prom," even if it's a scaled-down event outdoors instead of the usual glammed-up prom in San Francisco.
"It's no San Francisco, but it is a prom," he said. "Seniors have expressed their feelings that they just want to do something to get together as a class."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.