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Kansas High Schools Are Finding Ways To Safely Celebrate A Teen Rite Of Passage: Prom

North High student Riley Snipes, right, and her friend Allison Johnson pose for photos in front of the Keeper in their prom dresses last year.

Riley Sipes was a junior at Wichita’s North High School last spring when the COVID-19 shutdown closed schools and canceled prom and other activities.

She had already bought her dress — a smokey blue spaghetti-strap number that shimmers in the light. The phrase, “All dressed up and nowhere to go” had never seemed so fitting.

“It’s definitely been weird,” Sipes said. “I’m still disappointed that I missed out on so many of the traditions that North High has in place.”

But prom is back this year — for Sipes and many other Kansas high-schoolers. Though the COVID-19 pandemic is still a concern, school districts are finding ways to host the teen rite of passage while still adhering to public health recommendations.

In Wichita, the state’s largest district, high schools are holding proms in their gyms instead of other venues to make sure students are following safety measures. Masks are required, and students aren’t allowed to invite dates from other schools.

Valley Center High School held its prom recently in the airplane hangar that houses “Doc,” a restored B-29 bomber. Goddard’s two high schools also plan to have their proms in the hangar so small groups of students can remain socially distanced.

Some Kansas City-area schools plan to hold proms at Children’s Mercy Park, where the Sporting KC soccer team plays. Others are holding outdoor proms on their own football fields.

Branden Johnson, executive director of secondary schools for the Wichita district, says students deserve a little fun after a year of wearing masks, avoiding gatherings and losing out on so many activities.

“They’re the ones who’ve had to make a ton of sacrifices all year just to get school back open,” Johnson said. “So let’s reward them, as long as we can do it safe and securely.”

Some people have raised concerns about schools resuming prom. Last month, in a pandemic first for Kansas, teens ages 14-17 had the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the state. And health officials still warn against large gatherings.

But school officials, including Johnson, said they plan to implement many of the same measures they have in classrooms, including mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing, to keep proms safe.

“We have very little issue with mask compliance," Johnson said. "Almost every single kid is very used to wearing a mask at this point.

"So it’s no different for them doing it at school or wearing it at the dance.”

Sipes, the North High student, says she received her first dose of the two-part COVID-19 vaccine and plans to get her second dose before prom night.

Even so, North’s prom theme this year is, fittingly, “Masquerade,” and Sipes plans to wear a solid black mask that matches her shoes. Some of her friends plan to dress up their masks with sequins or use extra fabric from their prom dresses to make matching masks.

“I’m excited to have fun, but . . . people are sometimes stupid and don’t wear their mask correctly and maybe don’t social distance like they should,” the 18-year-old said.

“I know that that’s one of the biggest worries that me and my friends have, that people aren’t going to be responsible. So I plan on just keeping my distance from people (and) sticking to my little group.”

After prom was canceled last spring, Sipes and some friends decided to get dressed up anyway. They did their hair and makeup and went downtown near the Keeper of the Plains sculpture, where Sipes’ mom took some photos.

She plans to wear the same dress again and is glad to have somewhere to go.

“I could be there from like 30 minutes to all night,” she said. “But I know that I’m going to be with my friends, so I’m going to have fun.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT or email her at perez@kmuw.org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policyKansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org. 

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.