Prom in the COVID era means no dancing, food trucks, outdoor venues

Haley Brown hasn't picked out her prom dress yet, but she knows she'll pair evening attire with gym shoes for a night to remember.

Unlike years past, her graduating class at York High School in Elmhurst won't be boarding luxury coach buses to Chicago for a formal dinner, hours of dancing in a Navy Pier venue surrounded by palm trees, and a post-prom cruise on Lake Michigan.

Instead, seniors will trade stilettoes for sneakers and make an entrance into a football stadium.

Prom will move outdoors this year, and while the school has booked a DJ, students are meant to move, promenade-style, around the high school track as opposed to cramming onto a dance floor.

"We've definitely had to make a lot of adjustments," said Brown, 18, the student body president.

Prom at some other schools also might resemble the buttoned-up farming town in "Footloose": Teens will be expected to refrain from dancing.

At the dance-free Schaumburg High School prom Saturday, students were spread out in an Itasca hotel and served a sit-down dinner.

Still, other schools will allow socially distanced group dances. In another break with tradition, some will skip a catered meal. Several have outright canceled prom because of a lack of interest or virus concerns. Either way, most schools have put the kibosh on hosting a junior prom.

For seniors, though, organizers said they were determined to save prom season a year after the pandemic forced schools to call off Class of 2020 celebrations.

"I want our seniors and our upperclassmen to feel kind of special and still feel like they're getting that experience, that once-in-a-lifetime experience, that they've been dreaming about," said Tvishi Krishnakumar, a junior who's planning the outdoor prom at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.

Getting ready

Sue Cerulli felt the disappointment of prom cancellations last year. Her own niece never got to wear her prom dress. And at Cerulli's boutique in Naperville, designer prom dresses were donated to charity, went on sale or ended up in storage.

"Last year, we got cut right at the knees, right when prom season and bridal season was at its highest peak," the owner of Bri'Zan Couture said.

But this April, the shop saw a "tremendous spike" in prom shopping. Seamstresses are now working overtime in anticipation of the big night.

  Bri'Zan Couture owner Sue Cerulli, left, gets prom dress ideas from Simone Angelov, an 18-year-old from Bartlett, Friday in Naperville. Paul Valade/

"It's wonderful to see that the parents, the schools, the teachers, everybody is putting in the effort to make prom the best that they can this year and allow it to happen at some level, whatever that level may be," Cerulli said.

Simone Angelov, 18, and her mom, Natalie, spent Friday afternoon trying on dresses at Bri'Zan for her first and last prom at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, a school offering both in-person and virtual activities.

When the Bartlett teen modeled a full-length mermaid gown with lace detail, it was easy to see her smiling face behind her mask.

"I kind of feel like I have a bit of my youth back being able to go to senior year festivities like prom," Angelov said. "And although it's minimized in a sense - it's not going to be exactly as it has been - I'm still grateful."

'Senior experiences'

Many suburban schools chose a prom theme that reflects the strange, new normal. "Making memories" is the premise behind the Stevenson High School prom May 15.

As leaders of the junior class board, Jaden Varghese, Julia Chen and Krishnakumar helped organize the prom as a gift to the senior class. They had to stay flexible dealing with the constraints and uncertainty of the COVID-19 era.

Krishnakumar and Chen, for instance, had to rearrange their centerpiece design to put dividers on dinner tables.

"There's a lot of unpredictable elements to this prom, so attention to detail is very important for us, considering we don't know if another COVID outbreak is going to happen," Varghese said.

With safety top of mind, prom will be split up into three timed events on the same night so that the school can rotate in groups of students and keep social distancing rules in place.

Outdoor tents will be set up on an athletic field on the campus. Seniors will be treated to a red carpet arrival and their choice of a chicken or vegetarian entree. There will be photo ops and music, but no dancing.

Schools in Palatine-Schaumburg District 211 have arranged an evening of dinner, music, comedy and trivia in banquet halls later this month. When they arrive, student temperatures will be checked. Masks will be required at all times, except when eating.

"They really wanted some of these senior experiences, so we really did all we could to make it happen for them," Schaumburg Principal Brian Harlan said.

Three of the four campuses in Glenbard High School District 87 will hold a senior prom or a subdued version May 15.

Prom at Glenbard South High School, however, was canceled due to low interest because students were concerned about the potential spread of COVID, a district spokeswoman said.

The Glen Ellyn school still plans to celebrate seniors at a barbecue graduation rehearsal.

Rites of passage

At York High School, a starry night isn't just the theme, but the actual setting for prom.

Food trucks will prepare a "strolling dinner" at the football stadium May 15. Outdoor photo booths, raffles and other activities will be stationed around the track. The evening will end with a send-off video projected onto a giant screen for the school's nearly 700 seniors.

  York High School in Elmhurst is holding a senior prom on the track around the football field. "There will be music, but we're not going to have a traditional type of dance floor, and kids are not going to be dancing close together," the principal said. Paul Valade/

"The key here I think is making sure that our kids are all together and have that opportunity to celebrate the rites of passage that they deserve and as they end their senior year and leave York High School," Principal Shahe Bagdasarian said.

Even with the current restrictions, some students plan to make the most of an unconventional prom before they go on to college and the rest of their lives.

"Everyone at this point is just so thankful to have anything," said Brown, the York senior.

What prom will look like at suburban schools

Here’s a sampling of some of the prom events for high school seniors:

• Northwest Suburban High School District 214 will use stadiums, parking lots and green spaces for outdoor proms. The district will encourage mask wearing. Some schools will bring in food trucks; others will make boxed lunches available. Each prom will feature music, additional entertainment, distancing rules and no dance floors.

• St. Francis High School in Wheaton plans to hold a senior-only prom at the Abbington May 7. Four rooms will be used, and students can only stay in their assigned room to adhere to capacity limits.

• Small groups of students will be invited into Glenbard East High School in Lombard May 15. A DJ will play music that’s supposed to encourage socially distanced group dances.

• At Glenbard North in Carol Stream May 15, the DJ will be set up outside, and only 50 students will be allowed on the dance floor at a time.

• Glenbard West in Glen Ellyn will have games, a DJ and no dancing at “Senior Journey” May 15, an event replacing the traditional prom.

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