The decorations were purchased. The fundraisers were in full swing. The theme was nearly decided.
And then the prospect of junior prom came crashing down for the students of Wantagh High School. Last year, when the coronavirus outbreak began, Michael Minars, now a senior, said he and his classmates were "devastated."
"We were just on the cusp of getting everything together," says Michael, 17. "And everything shut down. We kind of felt defeated."
But this year, prom seems promising. High schools across Long Island are in the planning stages, listening to ever-changing New York State guidelines and making adjustments to their typical festivities. Some are moving the event outdoors, while others hope to celebrate in a venue, with safety measures in mind.
Prom on Main Street
One school is getting creative by using its surrounding community as a prom playground. For one evening, Patchogue-Medford High School will shut down Main Street for its seniors to celebrate together.
The mocktail hour will take place at a park in Medford and prom will stretch throughout Main Street in Patchogue, anchored in front of Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, says principal Randy Rusielewicz. The street will be transformed with decorations for the festivities, and there's plenty of space to social-distance the graduating class. Rusielewicz says they're expecting between 500 and 550 seniors in attendance.
Many people were involved in the planning process, including Paul Pontieri, mayor of the village of Patchogue, and several restaurant owners throughout Main Street. Eateries including That Meetball Place, Del Fuego and RHUM — to name just a few — will offer their menus to prom-goers, Rusielewicz adds.
"Our high school is one of biggest in the state," he says. "It would be a lot easier to pay a check to a catering hall and be done with it, but we wanted to make this happen for the kids. Talk about ‘go big or go home.’ "
Rusielewicz explains this approach is exciting not only for the students, but for businesses on Main Street that may have been struggling as a result of the pandemic. He hopes the event will bring the community even closer together, and maybe even establish a new prom tradition.
The big night out on Main Street is scheduled for June 21.
"We hope in a very small way when kids think back on their senior year, maybe it wasn’t so good, but they’ll remember that prom. It was the prom of all proms," Rusielewicz says.
An evening in the enchanted forest
William Floyd High School is planning a prom under the stars in their center courtyard, says assistant principal Robert Felicetta. It’ll be transformed into an "enchanted forest" — a theme the students came up with — and filled with activities such as a photo booth and a life-size Connect Four board.
"They are unbelievably excited," says senior class adviser Stacy Redmond.
Staff throughout the high school has gotten involved in the planning process to make sure it’s a night to remember.
"All of our departments have chipped in," Felicetta says. "The art department is building all the displays; the carpentry and tech departments are building the outdoor games. They’re building a lot of really cool things you normally wouldn't see at a prom."
Students will either be social-distanced or wearing masks the whole time, he adds. The prom is for seniors only, so students from other grade levels or schools attending as dates won’t be permitted. Felicetta is expecting about 275 students to attend.
The new prom location brought an added benefit for students — a lower ticket price. Admission that was ordinarily $125 has been slashed down to $50.
"That’s helped students who would have shied away during this time because of financial hardships," Redmond adds.
Another cost-cutting measure is the school’s annual formalwear giveaway. Staff accepts donations of new or gently used attire, including gowns, accessories, suits and shoes. Then they allow students to come pick what they’d like.
Teachers, local businesses and parents in the district all make donations, Felicetta notes, adding, "It was neat to see the more recent alumni come back and get involved."
The prom is scheduled for June 10, and the enthusiasm from school staff is palpable.
"This is the first big event the class is getting to do in over a year," Felicetta says.
Pondering prom possibilities
Paul Guzzone’s first year as principal of Wantagh High School has been action-packed, to say the least. Taking on this role in the throes of a pandemic has been challenging, and lately he’s been pivoting his efforts to prom-planning.
It’s no small task under normal circumstances.
"This has been a very fluid process for us," Guzzone says.
Many options were discussed with the senior class during the school year, including holding the prom at a venue but splitting the students into two separate rooms, due to capacity limitations at the time.
But the "overwhelming consensus" was that the students wanted to spend prom all together, whether it was indoors or outdoors, Guzzone says. The initial plan was to transform the hallways and gym in a grand way, leading to a large tent outside the school where the prom festivities would take place.
Then, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that the state would remove most capacity restrictions for businesses and institutions starting May 19. Guzzone and senior class adviser Deanna Pepe then revisited the district's original venue of choice: The Piermont in Babylon.
After discussions with the venue about safety protocols, and receiving their deposit back from Royal Party Tents, it was a "no-brainer," says Guzzone.
And it all came together in about a week.
"At the end of the day, the kids wanted to all be together," Guzzone adds. "That's why they selected to do the prom here. But with things changing, now I think they'll be able to experience prom the way they should."
Pepe had been working behind the scenes with about 70 parents to pull off prom at the high school. Even with the change of location, the plan is the same: "To keep it as much of a secret from students, about what it's going to look like, as possible," she says. Guzzone thinks they'll be "elated" once they find out where their prom will be held, after all.
"I just want them to be happy," Pepe adds.
Michael Minars will head to Wesleyan University in the fall, majoring in environmental studies. As the secretary of the Class of 2021 club, he says he’s excited for one big "last hurrah," no matter where it’ll be.
The prom is scheduled for June 23, which will follow graduation.
"It’s going to be the last time some of us see our classmates, ever," Minars says. "Honestly I’m just hoping for anything to bring us together one final time to celebrate our year as much as we can."
Aside from William Floyd High School's annual formalwear giveaway, where students can select from gently used prom attire, there are other dress drives making their returns this season.
The Long Island Volunteer Center has resumed hosting its 28th annual prom boutique, giving away gowns to help families out this prom season.
Since they had to cancel the event in 2020, there are tons of leftover dresses that were never claimed, says Diana O’Neill, a board of directors member and treasurer for the volunteer center.
She says they have about 2,500 dresses total, being kept at a storage unit in Nassau County. Anyone who would like to donate a dress can drop it off at one of two donation sites: the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City or the Junior League of Long Island thrift shop in Roslyn.
Students in need of a prom dress can have their high school counselor or youth program coordinator fill out a form, and then they can arrange a curbside pickup at the storage unit to receive donations, says O’Neill.
“We’re so grateful that we can do this, that we can fill a need,” she adds.