MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — The South Kingstown High School 2021 senior class walked into a hotel ballroom Tuesday night for their prom, sweet and smiling, looking sharp in their tuxes and gowns. Just a few months ago, it seemed almost impossible that this night would happen.
“I am so happy to be here. We missed out on so much. It’s just good to be here with everybody,” said senior Colton Haigh as he glanced around the room filled with his class, mingling and laughing, during their first major event with each other.
At South Kingstown High School — as at others across the country — students expected, until just about a month ago, that COVID-19 doom would kill this ritual and right-of-passage from high school to life’s next phase.
On Tuesday night at the Wyndham Newport Resort, the students gathered were only focused on the present — and their long-awaited reunion from a pandemic-induced separation that penetrated their very sense of identity as a high school class.
The prom became a night to remember for many reasons, said several students and class officers, who mused about other class activities that went swirling down the COVID drain.
“It’s so amazing to see everyone — and all dressed up. We’ve been apart for so long,” said senior Aria Fox, recalling that some students took only online classes during the year, while others came at different times, which caused a lack of unity for just daily hellos, waves or grunts in the school hallways.
At other local high schools holding senior proms this week, as well as in schools nationwide, the 2021 prom was a positive end to a year of disappointments and missed opportunities.
Homecoming dances and crowded football games were canceled, which perhaps stung the most for high school seniors, who were simultaneously navigating the strenuous college application process.
Prom does not make up for the trying year, but it can be a special “last hurrah” for many, USA Today reported. Proms are, in many traditional ways, high-society seasonal activities in high schools.
These formal events worked their way from college gatherings to today’s high school extravaganzas that take place in settings such as hotel ballrooms and country clubs. They still remain a pinnacle tradition at most high schools today.
“People just wanted something,” said Anna Vorhaben, one of two South Kingstown High School class photographers who helped bring her prom to life. “So much of what other classes had we couldn’t have, and everybody just wanted to push for this.”
Schools Superintendent Linda Savastano put it succinctly: “It is a memory that does last a lifetime. It could also be one of the last times that you see your classmates.”
Black and white stretch limousines pulled into the Wyndham Newport Resort parking lot with prom-goers. Students and their dates — or just coming alone — arrived in cars, too. No matter the transportation, they jumped out and yelled to friends as they greeted each other for this long-awaited event.
Girls in red, blue, green, black and multi-colored gowns filed in the resort’s door — some with dates, whose tuxedos and suits ranged from simple black or white to shades of blue or overlays of black and white.
Art teacher Gail Sabario and math teacher Kelly Mauro yelled out to the arriving students. “Stunning, you guys look amazing,” said Sabario to one group, and she repeated similar compliments to all the others as they approached.
Some couples even had matching masks, a clear reminder that COVID-19 precautions still linger.
As students walked into the resort, tables in gold and white were set with a formal ware for their sit-down dinner.
DJ Corey Young from Outside the Box Productions pulled out all the stops, bringing in dance club lighting, an extra sound system and all the musical favorites this young crowd likes.
“I’m hot and ready to go,” he said. “I want to make this the best for them.”
On Tuesday evening, the prom became real for these students — as did the memories many said they longed to have and missed so much.
“It’s nice to see the class together and everybody being happy,” said senior Abby Marco.
In this school, as in others, pulling the event together was not easy.
There were many ups and downs beginning in September, when South Kingstown High School students returned as seniors to a COVID-frozen environment, said several seniors on the planning committee and their co-advisors, teachers Mary Kutcher and Amanda Varone.
They gathered before the event to talk with The Independent about those efforts.
“The worst part was planning for the unknown,” said Haley Torell, class secretary.
Maddie Marshall, class treasurer, chimed in with a laugh: “I think we’re all dreaming that it’s happening. It’s like a fever dream.”
Restrictions on gatherings forced the cancellation of planned events throughout the year, like their variety show, sports-related gatherings, dances and other activities where the entire class got together and raised money for the prom.
“At one point when we talked about the prom, principal Dr. (Chip) McGair said, ‘We don’t know if we can have anything at this point,’” said one student.
Kutcher and Varone looked on, nodding in agreement with the comments from others that potential prom plans changed almost weekly.
This followed national and state health experts’ advice on restrictions that could be eased, then might be stepped up again, and perhaps relaxed again later because of a vaccine and lower case numbers.
In South Kingstown, these students just waited.
Then about a month or so ago, the go-ahead came. It followed ramped-up vaccination rates, lower counts of COVID-19 infections and Gov. Dan McKee signaling a rejuvenation of pre-pandemic life with fewer state restrictions on gatherings.
At the administrative level, Schools Superintendent Linda Savastano had been waiting for the moment that would allow this event to actually happen, taking developments in the COVID crisis one step at a time.
She said she knew something needed to be done to rescue part of the senior year, even if the timing was compressed.
“A COVID prom is more special because we now know that events like this are fragile,” the superintendent told The Independent this week. “We no longer take them for granted.”
For anxious students eager to find some normalcy in an unusual pandemic, the opening gates made it seem “like pushing senior year into a month and a half,” Vorhaben said.
The planning went into full speed.
Boxes of napkins were ironed, tux orders made, gowns selected, seating arrangements set, tickets sold and food ordered. Putting some additional COVID-19 protections in place — like contact tracing for guests and emailing invitations rather than hand-delivering them — was also necessary, students said.
These are just a few of more than 100 items on the follow-up task list. For the last month, the planning group has been meeting at least three to four times a week, the advisors and students said.
In addition, all prom attendees needed to take COVID-19 tests. Buffets were eliminated, along with some other changes.
“We are trying to make it as normal as possible for people to have fun,” said Corinne Robbins, another class photographer, who helped organize the event.
Parents also had a role in organizing the prom — parent Sharon Martin told The Independent Tuesday that a group helped raise money to offset its cost.
“Our group was creative in terms of fundraising, and our amazing community came together to support our kids,” she said.
Varone added, “The parents’ GoFundMe (online fundraising) was integral. We didn’t want the students to have to pay a lot for an event when we haven’t been able to adequately fundraise.”
Martin, in a previous interview, said that “teenagers are social creatures, and not being able to enjoy these events has left them feeling sad. So, a group of parents got together to brainstorm ways that we could make the second half of their senior year fun.”
The group grew to over 20 parents who researched activities done elsewhere that followed social distancing, but still brought students together.
“If it wasn’t for the parents, I don’t know what we would have done,” said Kutcher and Varone.
“They gave us that extra push. It’s hard to keep your morale up. You get discouraged,” Kutcher said earlier this year.
The Fun Night Is Here
As the prom unfolded Tuesday night, morale was high, and it seemed almost as if the past year could be dismissed as a bad dream. Now, graduation is less than two weeks away.
“I am so excited to see everyone, to hang out with people, and it’s more like it used to be,” said senior Karmen Lambert.
Curtis Rasmussen, who graduated in 2020 without a prom and was attending this year’s with a member of the class of 2021, said he felt good just getting dressed up for a while.
People headed to the dance floor after dinner, and could also get together outside in a game tent.
The very long line for prom pictures showed all smiles with each click of the photographer’s camera.
School Principal Chip McGair said it pleased him that this class could see a return to important in-person gatherings — almost mirroring those in a pre-COVID era. He also praised class advisors Varone and Kutcher, whose dedication to students made them “the perfect advisors to navigate COVID.”
“Senior prom is one of the key senior send-offs,” McGair said. “We endeavor to have different types of events for our seniors, ranging from adult-led ceremonies to an informal pizza party.”
“Prom is a nice balance of formality and student-led fun. It is enjoyable to see them all dressed up, but also getting to relax and enjoy their friends’ company,” he said.
On Monday evening, Narragansett and North Kingstown high schools also held their senior proms.
Nicholas Archambault, Narragansett High School senior class president, said, “The prom is always a tradition everyone looks forward to and a great way to end the year and our high school experience.”
Narragansett Principal Dan Warner added, “We can’t stress enough how important it is for students to engage in these types of traditional high school activities. They haven’t been able to do that over the past year, which has affected them greatly, as it did within the entire community.”
The principal added that “we couldn’t be more excited and hopeful for a new sense of normalcy.”
At the South Kingstown High School prom Tuesday night, the end of a year that lacked most of the experiences high school seniors expect bought an equally unusual sense of normalcy for these students.
Senior Abby Marco called it “a bit surreal,” with friends and seniors Erik Lindstrom and Justin Bader agreeing.
“This is the first time we’ve all been together as a class to have fun,” Lindstrom added.
Joshua Carter was there with date Kailin Diaz. He said, “It feels normal in one way, but it feels kind of new because of COVID and we all haven’t been together and the hope that we would be.”
Looking at the see-saw ride of classmates over the last many months and wondering if the prom would happen, class secretary Haley Torell saw both the irony of the evening and the hope that a dream can come true.
“Your parents went to a prom. It’s something you’ve always known was in your future,” she said.