Susan Johnson, OPRF’s student activities director, said she was – and has been – listening to the seniors, and what she heard from them is that they want to be together. Whether it’s graduation or prom, the biggest challenge Johnson faced was finding a venue that could accommodate all 850 students, plus additional staff and even volunteers without violating village and state guidelines.
If OPRF hosted prom, it would look a lot like its graduation ceremony, Johnson said. The school would have to, again, split up the senior class into smaller groups and throw separate proms, which is not what the students want, she said.
“Our challenge in a normal prom year is finding a venue that could hold 800 kids, so finding it right now is even more difficult, especially one that can be safe,” said Johnson, who combed through several venues across the Chicagoland, ranging from Brookfield Zoo to local parks and parking lots.
“We looked around and we tried to find as big of a space that could hold our kids,” she went on, “but we weren’t able to succeed in that aspect.”
The only place Johnson was able to lock down was Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, which is about a 50-minute drive north of Oak Park.
“No one has to pay for anything, and they all get to be together,” she said. “At one point during the day, they’re going to sit down and have a meal together in the same spot and be able to share that kind of family style.”
Senior Elijah Evans, however, didn’t agree with Johnson. Even though he plans on going to the amusement park, Evans called the trip “degrading” and “pretty pathetic,” since most eighth graders in Oak Park cap off their middle school years with a similar celebration.
“It honestly is hurting the feelings of most of our class because saying ‘Oh, you can go to Six Flags and ride the bus with your friends’ – that’s literally what we did in eighth grade,” he said.
Seniors Ella Sorensen and Meghann Spillane echoed some of Evans’ sentiments. Spillane, who isn’t a huge fan of rollercoasters and doesn’t plan on going, said that what gets lost in the conversation is that seniors are missing out on all those events that led up to the night of the dance. It’s about getting dressed up, looking nice and having pictures taken, she said.
Those are the milestones that are missing, but they are also ones Johnson is trying to recreate.
“I want to assure everybody that we have been working really, really hard to try and find solutions that give our kids everything, and we’ve been doing that for months now,” Johnson said. “I just want to reassure them that we have been doing that, and we’re trying really hard to give them what they want and keep them safe at the same time.”
Parents, students organize alternate ‘formal’ in Indiana
Prom is once again cancelled at Oak Park and River Forest High School, but a small group of students and parents are looking to hold on to the cherished tradition with a privately organized event. The catch: Only 350 OPRF students can attend, and all students who go must be fully vaccinated.
The senior formal, a private event organized by student and parent volunteers, will be held May 31 from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Marquette Park in Gary, Indiana, which is about an hour drive from Oak Park. With tickets costing $55, students will be bused to and from the northwest Indiana-based park. There will be six or seven shuttle buses, and students and chaperones alike are required to wear masks on the bus, said Michelle Hess, one of the formal’s organizers.
Hess, a mother of an OPRF senior, said she and other volunteers wanted to host a formal for the seniors to give them “some closure,” a chance to “let their hair down and have some fun,” especially since the coronavirus pandemic turned their senior year upside down.
Hess said the idea to throw the gathering in nearby Indiana came to her. She thought about her family’s cottage in Indiana, and “there’s this beautiful lagoon kind of banquet area in Marquette Park.”
Last September, the state of Indiana moved into its fifth stage of COVID response, reopening gyms, fitness centers, restaurants, indoor and outdoor venues at full capacity. Indiana state parks and forests, nature preserves and other state recreation areas are now open, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
In early April, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb lifted the statewide mask mandate, but municipalities still have the final say whether residents should mask up. Public health officials in Lake County, where the city of Gary is located, have continued to require residents to wear masks.
To ensure everyone’s safety, students must also present an image of their vaccination cards to chaperones before boarding the shuttle buses, Hess said. Students are also asked to disclose the dates of their vaccines on an online form before they can purchase a ticket. Hess added that chaperones, the DJ and photographer need to be vaccinated as well.
Hess said attendees are required to sign a “Best Behavior” pledge, which means they understand drugs and alcohol are not allowed at the event.
More than 200 tickets have been sold, according to Hess. She noted details about the senior formal were emailed to parents and posted on a Facebook page for OPRF parents. With the event now in public discussion, Karin Sullivan, OPRF communications director, addressed the senior formal, informing parents that it is not a school event.
“We want to make it clear that the school did not provide email addresses for that mailing, and that is a private event that is not sanctioned by the school,” Sullivan wrote. “We are not able to provide any information on the event, as it is not school-sponsored.”
Seniors Meghann Spillane and Emma Brandt are a couple of seniors who plan on going to the formal. Spillane and Brandt said they aren’t too worried about COVID-19, because all guests are vaccinated.
“I’m just excited that we have another option,” said the 18-year-old Spillane. “Since we’re all vaccinated, and it’s going to be outside, I feel like it’s pretty safe.”
As a parent, Michelle Brandt, Emma Brandt’s mother, agreed with her daughter’s and Spillane’s comments. Michelle Brandt said she was the one who shared the formal’s details with Emma, and “it just seemed like the parents put it together with a lot of thought.”
“I actually appreciate what they’re trying to do and the fact that it gives the kids a little bit – like some pictures, some memories, an opportunity to get together outside in a fairly safe environment,” she said.
But Libby Eggert, another OPRF senior, was hesitant. Eggert was weary of the invitation, which didn’t list Hess or the other parent and student volunteers’ names. The letter was signed by the 2021 Senior Formal Planning Committee.
“I’d feel a little better if I knew who was in charge,” she said. “The lack of transparency makes me nervous.”
“It’s also just a very short event,” she said. “We spend just as much time getting there as you do at the venue. And, even though I’ll be vaccinated and everyone else there will be vaccinated, I don’t know if I’m ready to go to an event that scale yet.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that formal attendees were required to upload their vaccination cards before purchasing a ticket or bring a physical copy of their cards before boarding the shuttle buses. Attendees are required to show an image of their vaccination cards. This post has since been updated. Wednesday Journal regrets the error.