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Wearing her formal, sparkly green dress and a gold corsage with pink flowers around her wrist, Anna Sanders approached the food truck outside of the wedding venue that Heritage High School rented out for this year’s Prom and ordered loaded fries with pulled pork, a strawberry shakeup, and a funnel cake.

It was far from the fancy meal usually served at the school’s prom at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign, but Sanders didn’t mind.

“It was so much fun,” she said. “That’s one of the things I’m grateful for about this prom. It was almost like a better version of prom.”

For Sanders, prom was more than just a dance. It was one of the few school-wide rites of passage she and her classmates were able to participate in. Slow dances may have been off-limits, and the menu may have consisted of fair food, but that didn’t dampen the spirits of students who have missed out on sports seasons, dances, performances and other extracurricular events that make a high school experience memorable.

Schools around the area that made the decision to hold prom have planned it with safety mitigations in place, but they’re also coming up with new ideas to make the night special.

Usually, Rantoul Township High School books the Linden Banquet Center for the next year’s event shortly after that year’s ends. But as February rolled around this year, no plan was set, and it became clear that holding the event inside wouldn’t be an option.

That didn’t mean prom was off, though.

“Over the past couple of months, as some of the restrictions have lifted and we’ve moved into a different phase, we knew that we could do more,” Principal Todd Wilson said. “It went from, ‘We may not be able to do anything,’ to, ‘Well, it looks like we’ll be able to do all of this.”

Instead of a normal prom, Wilson said Trisha Freeman, who coordinates the dance, began to plan an outdoor event.

There will be no formal dinner or dancing at a March 14 event the school is billing as “Not Prom,” but seniors will have a chance to dress up in formal attire for a night of fun on the football field. Students will take part in a promenade where their names will be announced, they’ll be served refreshments, they’ll be entered into raffles for prizes that range from gift cards to a laptop, and the evening will be capped off with a movie.

“It’s not a formal, sit-down dinner and then a time for them to dance,” Wilson said, “but it is a time for them to have an event for themselves, to dress up, to be announced, to be able to be with their class one last time before graduation and have some special things happen, like the announcing of their names, different refreshments that they’ll have, and drawings throughout the evening.”

St. Joseph-Ogden students will also be treated to a night under the stars in the form of a formal banquet on the south lawn of the school. It’ll be different from the senior prom that Kylie Duckett envisioned before the pandemic, but students who missed out on their junior prom and so much more in the last year aren’t necessarily being picky.

“I know it won’t quite be the same,” Duckett said, “but I know that everybody’s excited to have something, and to be able to get ready and get dressed for something, you know?”

Because students have already missed so much, Salt Fork Principal Darin Chambliss and his staff didn’t want to risk any of the extracurriculars they’ve waited so long to take part in.

So instead of holding prom during its traditional time, they’re holding it June 26, one week after the final sporting event of the spring.

“We wanted to find a way to do it, but we didn’t want to create some super- spreader event that shuts down our sports season once we finally get to do it,” Chambliss said. “So the first thing that we decided was to have prom after all of the athletic events are over. That way, there’s not a risk of shutting down sports based on something that might happen at prom.”

Schools that are holding their proms in April are hoping that enough space, ventilation and other mitigations are enough to limit risk.

With those mitigation strategies comes a new fashion accessory. Masks are becoming a focal point when putting together formal wear, and girls are finding interesting ways to make them.

“There were a lot of girls that matched their dress or even their jewelry,” Sanders said. “When they got their dress altered, they made matching masks and bow ties for their date.”

Many area schools, including Champaign Central, Centennial, Urbana and St. Thomas More, won’t hold their proms this year. Sister M. Bridget Martin, principal at St. Thomas More, said the school shared its proms plans with the Champaign- Urbana Public Health District, but was told it wasn’t possible.

Seniors like Mahomet- Seymour’s Georgia Liagridonis and Clay Hubble know they can count themselves lucky, even though they won’t be heading to a ballroom next Saturday.

Instead, they’ll head to the school’s fieldhouse next weekend after receiving rapid COVID-19 tests during the day. They’ll sit with a small group of friends in a large space and have to remain 6 feet apart when dancing. It won’t be the same as they expected before high school was upended last March, after Liagridonis had already bought the yellow dress she planned to wear.

A year later, though, they’re thankful for any bit of the typical high school experience they can glean from their last months before graduation.

“It’ll feel different, but it’ll be somewhat normal,” Hubble said. “And it’ll be nice to get a little normalcy back and just have fun.”

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