BELLE — For everyone who made it through the last year by trying to imagine the party that would be thrown when COVID-19 restrictions had finally eased: Imagine no more.
“It’s perfect,” said Riverside High School senior Sofie Leffew, 18, beneath a white tent with sparkling lights and crowded portable dance floor where the school’s grass-covered courtyard had been just a few hours before.
“I’m getting emotional,” she said.
And no wonder.
All eight Kanawha County public high schools are holding proms this year, no small feat after the entire 2020 prom season was shut down at the 11th hour last year when pandemic numbers began to climb.
What would have been Riverside’s 20th prom involved exhaustive plans for an extravagant, over-the-top throw-down.
“We had everything for prom done. All the decorations, done ... We finished it on Friday and the following Monday it was canceled,” said senior Rylea Jennings, 17, Riverside prom committee president.
“The kids were very disappointed,” said Jane Kennedy, the principal.
By early fall, Jennings said, committee members were focused on doing whatever they would need to do, meeting whatever restrictions would have to be met, in order to pull off a prom.
“We started planning for an outside prom in October, before the board had ever sent anything out about prom being outside,” she said. “And we knew that we wanted the theme to be simple because we only had nine people for a prom committee.”
“We definitely had to make sure people were allowed outside for extra space, and inside, if they wanted to be inside. And we had to have so many tables spread apart and we had to have masks and hand sanitizer on every single table, that we wouldn’t have done any other year,” Leffew said.
At first, there was a strict limit on the number of people who could attend. But as COVID-19 cases continued to drop, the restrictions began to loosen and the indoor-outdoor, spaced and sanitized prom was opened to all eligible students and their guests.
“Before they were even given approval to have it, they had already figured out, ‘We’ll have it in back. We can have tents.’ They had everything planned so when the governor said we could do it, they were ready to go,” said Kennedy — who admitted she was thrilled the party came together, even if it wasn’t an academic event.
“School is about social times as well, with their colleagues and friends, and that’s the part that brings on a sense of community,” she said.
Riverside was one of three local high schools to secure the first available weekend of April 24 for the event.
A few miles away at George Washington High, a thick, coffee-colored mud covered the bottoms of sequined gowns and rhinestone-studded heels, and a cold, steady drizzle managed to soak through more than a few tuxedo jackets. There was a little grumbling — “This is what we’ve been waiting a year for?” asked one disgruntled student as he fumbled with an umbrella — but the weather didn’t seem to dampen the spirits for most of the 400 partiers in attendance.
“They had a great time out there. The kids appreciated it. They got to have a king and queen, it’s still formal,” said Jim Crawford, the principal.
“Even with the weather and everything they were just, ‘Thank you for even having it.’”
Organizers, he said, didn’t know for sure there would be a prom until late March.
“They just took it and ran with it. We had a lot of help from the community, a lot of help from the board of education, so things just kind of came together — for everybody.”
From the dance floor of the Beni Kedem Temple downtown where Hoover’s prom took place, Natalie Stricker paused mid-beat.
“This is my dress from last year. Thank God I still fit it,” she said.
Stricker graduated from Hoover in 2020 and didn’t get a prom. But her boyfriend is a senior this year, so she organized the evening she wanted to have back then.
“I acted like it was my senior prom. We took pictures at city hall and had dinner at Fazio’s,” she said, smiling.
Prom is a big deal every year. A milestone for soon-to-be young adults on the brink of the rest of their lives.
But this year? After the cancellations and shutdowns, the social distancing and masks, the sheer boredom and disappointment of it all?
This prom season is exponentially that much bigger. That much shinier. That much more important — because it marks the beginning of a long-awaited return to normal.
Back at Riverside, senior Jaden Booker, 18, stepped back from the dance floor to take it all in. How he has the energy to dance at all is in itself a tribute to the magnitude of this moment.
He spent long hours before the party began making sure the hundreds of twinkling lights would work.
“We had to run extension cords everywhere and then find a way to keep it safe since it was going to rain ... I was on a ladder for probably five hours,” he said.
It was important to him to get it right, he said. Because after four years of high school, this would be a night he and his classmates would remember decades from now.
“It’s absolutely worth it,” he said, “just to see the smiles on everyone’s faces.”