Bryton Seaton, a Fenwick 2022 graduate, cheers with his fellow grads during the commencement ceremony, May 27, at the University of Illinois Chicago. | Courtesy of Fenwick High School

With COVID-19 restrictions loosened in recent months, schools in Oak Park and River Forest have anticipated the return of familiar year-end celebrations. From in-person dances to graduation ceremonies, staff, students and families across both communities have had the opportunity this year to celebrate milestones in a somewhat normal fashion.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Oak Park and River Forest High School was among the many holding commencements for the graduating class of 2022. This year, OPRF hosted a single ceremony at the football stadium, with each senior allowed to bring up to five guests. Last year, the school divided the senior class into two groups and held separate ceremonies in addition to limiting the number of guests to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

Trinity High School also held an in-person graduation last week at its newly renovated auditorium, but Susan Bedell, vice president of student life, said this was not the school’s first time throwing an in-person graduation since the pandemic. The all-girls Catholic high school pulled a similar move last year and put on a graduation ceremony for its class of 2021 in the gym, but based on state and local guidelines, masks were mandatory for all attendees for that indoor event, Bedell said. Required masking has since been eased statewide in the last few months but remains a recommended safety measure by some local health authorities. Trinity, Bedell said, was also one of the area high schools that held a drive-through graduation in 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic.

With this year’s commencement events close to “normal,” she’s seen “extreme gratitude” among the new crop of graduates.

A Trinity graduate receiving her diploma during commencement on Thursday, May 26 in River Forest. | Shanel Romain

“The students are so grateful for the opportunity to celebrate these milestones with the tradition and historical roots here at Trinity. While the season can always be busy with lots of to-dos, what I’m blown away by is all the joy and gratitude for all the small things,” Bedell said, adding that school officials were able to bring back more food-related events, especially this past spring, as COVID guidelines eased. For the first time since the pandemic, the school put on a barbecue for the senior class, one of Trinity’s traditional send-offs, and a four-course dinner was served at this year’s prom. The prom last year was a masked indoor event that had no food and shorter event hours. 

“Breaking bread is such an important way to celebrate milestones,” Bedell said, reflecting on sharing food as a communal act baked into school events.

OPRF and Fenwick High School also hosted prom for students. This spring, OPRF held its first prom since the pandemic began in 2020. Like Trinity, Fenwick was able to modify its prom last year to help keep staff and students safe.

Kim Kotty, a Fenwick teacher who helps organize prom, said the school held the dance at The Max, an indoor athletic and exposition center in suburban McCook. The large space provided students the chance to socially distance yet still be together, Kotty said. Still following COVID-19 guidelines, she said, last year’s prom featured no food or dance floor. Instead, students were presented with a variety of activities and games, including mini-golf, karaoke and more.

Kotty told Wednesday Journal that this year Fenwick, like Trinity and OPRF, hosted a more formal prom for its juniors and seniors. Both events left room for a dance floor, and the senior prom had a seated dinner, she said.

The elementary schools in Oak Park and River Forest are also reviving traditions for staff, students and families. Despite softened mitigations, Oak Park District 97, however, reinstated a masking requirement for indoor events due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases after school staff and students returned from spring break in early April.

In River Forest District 90, the eighth-grade dance, one of many traditions, made its return this year, said district spokesperson Dawne Simmons. The district also plans to bring back the “clap out” ceremony for its fourth-graders, a graduation-like ceremony. The “clap out” was an annual tradition until the pandemic started and served as a send-off for the fourth-grade class which moves on to middle school, Simmons said. On the last day of school, the fourth graders walk out of the building together, their teachers clapping in rhythm and their parents near the front entrance waiting for them.

“It’s heartwarming,” Simmons said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Fenwick teacher and prom organizer Kim Kotty. This post has since been updated. Wednesday Journal regrets the error.

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