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From socially distanced proms to fire pits, senior traditions look different this year

On their way to prom: West Bridgewater seniors (from left) CJ Smith, Alli Adams, Hannah Edlund, and Chris Nenopoulos.

Allison Adams and CJ Smith were a vision in lilac as they headed off to West Bridgewater’s senior prom together last month, each accessory selected to complement Adams’ floor-length pale purple gown. Her wrist corsage. His pocket square and tie. And, of course, the couple’s matching face masks.

No one envisions masks as part of their prom photos, Adams conceded. But she and her friends considered themselves among the luckier of Massachusetts high school students as they danced on an outdoor dance floor, keeping a careful distance apart, on a blustery evening in late April.

“The night was perfect,” Adams reported. “We were thrilled that we could do something even close to a prom.”

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Indeed, many area high schools have simply found the idea of a midpandemic prom too problematic and canceled the perennial tradition altogether this year. It’s a decision firmly endorsed by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in an April 1 update stating, “Prom is an inherently high-risk activity….DESE strongly recommends that schools do not have proms and instead substitute alternative celebrations for seniors.”

And so long before Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement last Monday that nearly all pandemic-related restrictions would be eased as of May 29, administrators, school committees, and student leaders at many schools had already taken DESE’s advice and devised creative solutions.

Framingham seniors will attend an outdoor gathering with a sit-down dinner in tents along with fire pits and group games — semi-formal attire encouraged, though not required. Walpole High School is holding an evening event for seniors with food trucks, an obstacle course, and a DJ. “Last year there was nothing. So it’s a step in the right direction,” said Spanish language teacher Kate Bacon, the faculty head of senior class events in Walpole.

Not everyone is buying into these alternative options. “Some people are perfectly happy with the plan,” said Framingham High School senior Nate Jacobs. “For me and a lot of people I know, it’s just not equivalent at all. I do appreciate that all costs are covered. That’s thoughtful of the school district, especially at a time when some families might be particularly strapped for money. But this isn’t even the beta version of prom. It’s something much farther down the Greek alphabet. Maybe the theta or kappa version.”

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Jeff Convery, vice principal at Framingham High School, has spent countless hours over the past year planning class events only to see rules and guidelines change, forcing cancellations. He pointed out too that the many disruptions of the past year made it impossible for students to conduct the kind of fund-raising that typically defrays prom costs.

Still, Convery acknowledges it’s a loss. “I know they want to be on the top floor of State Street overlooking the lights of Boston like the classes before them have done at their proms. And that’s what I wanted for them too. But I also remember last year, when seniors got nothing.”

To Amy Davenport, principal of Westwood High School, her school’s decision to forge ahead with a senior prom – held outdoors earlier this month under two separate tents – was one small concession the administration could make to a class that had given up so much.

“This has been a really hard year for everybody,” Davenport said a few days before the prom took place. “Teachers have been bending over backwards. Parents have had to double as school administrators. But I don’t think we’ve given kids enough credit for how they’ve risen to the occasion. I feel the least we can do is have a prom, as a way of recognizing how hard they’ve worked. We want to let them flex those social muscles. Get dressed up, see people they haven’t been able to spend time with, take silly pictures, listen to music and dance. We think that’s something we can replicate safely based on what we’ve learned this year.”

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Even those schools holding proms can’t please everyone. “They’re serving a boxed dinner. They’re having a DJ, but the kids have to dance 6 feet apart. They’re combining it with an awards night and trivia. And all in the space of three hours,” commented the mother of a Marblehead High School senior who did not want to be named because of her negativity. Following the governor’s announcement last week loosening restrictions, the woman brightened a bit. “We’re just crossing our fingers now,” she said, “that maybe they won’t need to wear masks.”

Indeed, as the local health picture improves, many students are determined to make the best of the circumstances. After all, this year’s seniors missed out on junior proms and other springtime festivities due to the pandemic a year ago, when no gatherings of any kind were permitted, and having something, many of them agree, is better than having nothing.

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“It’s definitely different,” said Megan Ciluffo, a senior class representative in Gloucester who was instrumental in planning her school’s prom. Like some other schools, Gloucester High School is breaking with tradition and holding prom after graduation instead of before, just in case graduation itself causes any unexpected COVID outbreaks.

“We’re all a little bit unsure about how it will be having a prom on our school athletic field, but I’m just grateful we’re getting to be together as a class before we go our separate ways,” Ciluffo said. “However it turns out, it’s better than looking back 20 years from now and saying we just wish we’d done something.”

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.

(From left) Kennedy Rounds, Madison Kolterjahn, Lacie Ciarametaro, and Megan Ciluffo try on the dresses they will wear for the Gloucester High outdoor prom. All four have been vaccinated for COVID-19. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff