Apr. 16—Knowing the pandemic has thrown a wrench into planning for year-end high school events, parent Patricia Maxwell has a backup for prom.
Maxwell and 30 other families from University High School in Southfield have committed to throwing a private prom for their seniors on private property owned by one of the families.
Tent, dinner, photo, DJ and keepsake bag all included — just in case the school’s June 4 football-field prom is canceled due to COVID-19 worsening in Michigan. Each participant will have to take a COVID test three days before the event to attend.
“I think they deserve it. They are really, really good kids. They worked hard for this. If the school does not do anything, they will have it as a memory,” Maxwell said.
Parents and school officials alike are precariously planning for traditional events like prom and graduation during another school year that has been anything but traditional.
That means outdoor proms and football-field commencements are among the few options school officials across Michigan can even offer graduating seniors this spring as COVID-19 cases and rates skyrocket.
Planning for school events has become a logistical nightmare for principals and other administrators who are examining weekly COVID rates in their own communities and are forced to pivot from one plan to another and hope something sticks.
Last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asked school superintendents to voluntarily close high schools for two weeks and send teens into virtual learning at home to combat rising COVID-19 rates. Most did not.
Steve Carlson, principal of Sandusky Jr./Sr. High School, said he has been working with school staff and advisers for weeks to try to arrange these celebratory events. Difficult decisions abound.
At a minimum, students must wear masks to all school gatherings and events and adhere to social distance rules for groups of different sizes. Temperature checks and pre-event COVID-19 tests are up to each school.
“We are going to make some difficult decisions, like temperature checks before prom,” Carlson said. “I am dreading sending anyone home from their prom if their temperature is high. They are all dressed up and spent all that money.”
The Thumb-area school decided to hold its prom outdoors in a large tent in a nearby municipal park. Plans call for decorating heavily with lights — think the movie “Footloose,” Carlson said. Logistics around dancing, serving food and a DJ have to be addressed.
“We are still looking into how we want to do the dancing. There are lot of things put in place to reduce contact but that takes away from what prom is,” Carlson said. “What I pledged to parents and seniors is we will have the best possible masked outdoor prom that we can.”
Carlson originally planned the prom for May 8 with graduation on May 23. Then he realized if anyone had to quarantine or came down with COVID after prom, they would miss their high school graduation. He now plans to move prom to May 1.
“I am not holding a prom that could result in a senior missing graduation,” Carlson said.
Amid the pandemic, middle and high school principals are searching for creative ways to honor and recognize student and staff accomplishments this year under new state rules.
For the moment, districts are still following the March 19 state order on gatherings, which outlines how schools can host events from staff retirements to commencement, eighth-grade graduation, athletic recognition and transition opportunities.
It’s not clear whether any new orders on gatherings will be issued as COVID-19 numbers rise in Michigan. Gathering rules require masks be worn at all times during events except when eating.
Bob Kefgen, director of government relations with the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, says schools should first consult with their local health departments and legal counsels before making decisions about gatherings.
Kefgen said since there is no section in the state order for “school gathering,” events such as prom and graduation fall under rules for entertainment facilities, recreation facilities and food service establishments.
He says the first set of questions school officials have to answer: Where is the gathering being hosted, what type of gathering is it and will food be served there?
“If you can answer those three questions, then you can parse the rules around what you need to be doing for that gathering,” Kefgen told school officials last month during a webinar on event planning.
The “where” — such as indoors or outdoors — determines how many people can attend, he said, which leads to rules on venue density and capacity under the state order.
For most indoor events, schools can have a maximum of 300 patrons. At outdoor events, they can typically have no more than 1,000. But those limits can vary based on both the venue type and total venue seating capacity.
Finally, the rules are different yet for social gatherings like school dances, Kefgen said. For social gatherings, indoor events can host only groups of 25 people or less from any number of households. Outdoor events can have a group of 300 people from any number of households.
The rules say no mingling or physical contact between groups. Groups must maintain 6 feet of distancing at all times.
Principals interviewed by The Detroit News said they did not want to hold multiple indoor proms with groups of 25 students or less per room on the same night, fearing it would divide students in unwelcome ways. So most have moved prom outside.
How the rules apply to dancing at prom remains unclear, Kefgen said.
“We know from the epidemic order that dance floors at nightclubs and restaurants are not allowed, but where does prom hosted in a school parking lot fit?” Kefgen said. “Principals would dearly love some clear guidance that is written to expressly address the questions schools face as they plan end-of-year activities like prom and graduation.”
Jennifer K. Starlin, an attorney with the Thrun Law Firm, which advises school districts in Michigan, said given the current state of the ongoing pandemic in Michigan, it’s too early to make any definitive calls on prom or other end-of-year activities.
“We will continue to monitor orders and advise clients in response to specific questions, and we’ll always advise that schools comply with safety precautions and gathering limits, and check with local health departments for other restrictions,” Starlin said.
Oakland County’s Berkley High School is planning for a senior-only prom in an open-air building/pavilion to be determined, said principal Andrew Meloche.
“Please know that all of these plans are contingent upon the future status of the pandemic, executive orders and safety mandates. Therefore, there is the possibility and potential that they may still need to be altered, tweaked or updated as we move forward,” Meloche told students and parents in an email.
The school’s honors convocation will be held virtually at a date to be determined in May, while graduation is scheduled to be in-person June 3 at Meadow Brook.
Meloche said he cannot answer questions yet about the number of tickets and guests each student will be allotted, saying those answers will be driven by executive orders on outdoor gatherings at the time.
“While there are still a lot of remaining questions and unknowns, our hope is that these events build some excitement for the Class of 2021,” he said. “This has been a tough year and each of you has already given up a lot of your traditional senior festivities.”
Amy Hendry, principal of Carter Middle School in Warren, said last school year, principals across the country were just in survival mode.
“Now we have time to plan and live every season in the pandemic,” Hendry said. “This will look different this year. Celebrations will look different. It’s about how you make the kids feel.”
Typically, the school’s eighth-grade farewell is held at Dave & Busters. This year, Carter will hold the event in a football field to allow its 225 students to be spaced out. The idea is to put food trucks and ice trucks around and let students walk and socialize safely, she said.
“The football field gives us that acreage. It’s perfect for us, We are at looking at have a DJ to establish a celebration vibe,” Hendry said. “Celebrations have been formal in the past. They have evolved during the pandemic.”
April will be an important month for all schools to monitor COVID cases to see if the current surge peaks and recedes, she said.
“It’s planning one day, adjusting and planning again, and trying to get that monumental moment for our students,” Hendry said.
Schools have been rapid-testing students for COVID-19 to keep the spread down.
Michigan health officials issued an epidemic order requiring rapid testing for all youth athletes ages 13 to 19 beginning April 2. They also rolled out a new rapid testing program on April 1 for high school students, hoping to prevent a surge in COVID-19 outbreaks in public schools after spring break.
So far, 161,200 students and 10,800 staff from 565 districts have enrolled in the MI Safe Schools Testing Program, state health officials said. This includes athletes and non-athletes.
Despite the uncertainty about prom, retailers selling gowns for big events say business has been booming. At Unique Lady Bridal & Prom in Southfield, owner Donna Albanna said the store is full on Saturdays of young women shopping for that perfect dress.
Last Saturday, Divine Child High School senior Carlye Lewis and her mom, Carol, searched for a dress for the Dearborn school’s April 24 senior prom.
Typically the junior/senior prom is held at the Dearborn Inn, but school officials have moved the event under a tent on school property. Only seniors can attend, and no outside guests can come.
“They are doing everything they can,” Carol Lewis said. “Last year, they canceled it entirely. Everyone has been thinking and planning and brainstorming. They are making the best of it.”