Kansas High Schools Are Finding Ways To Safely Celebrate A Teen Rite Of Passage: Prom

By Suzanne Perez – Kansas News Service

Riley Sipes was a junior at Wichita’s North High School last spring when the COVID-19 shutdown closed schools and canceled prom and other activities.

She had already bought her dress — a smokey blue spaghetti-strap number that shimmers in the light. The phrase, “All dressed up and nowhere to go” had never seemed so fitting.

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“It’s definitely been weird,” Sipes said. “I’m still disappointed that I missed out on so many of the traditions that North High has in place.”

But prom is back this year — for Sipes and many other Kansas high-schoolers. Though the COVID-19 pandemic is still a concern, school districts are finding ways to host the teen rite of passage while still adhering to public health recommendations.

In Wichita, the state’s largest district, high schools are holding proms in their gyms instead of other venues to make sure students are following safety measures. Masks are required, and students aren’t allowed to invite dates from other schools.

Valley Center High School held its prom recently in the airplane hangar that houses “Doc,” a restored B-29 bomber. Goddard’s two high schools also plan to have their proms in the hangar so small groups of students can remain socially distanced.

Some Kansas City-area schools plan to hold proms at Children’s Mercy Park, where the Sporting KC soccer team plays. Others are holding outdoor proms on their own football fields.

Branden Johnson, executive director of secondary schools for the Wichita district, says students deserve a little fun after a year of wearing masks, avoiding gatherings and losing out on so many activities.

“They’re the ones who’ve had to make a ton of sacrifices all year just to get school back open,” Johnson said. “So let’s reward them, as long as we can do it safe and securely.”

Some people have raised concerns about schools resuming prom. Last month, in a pandemic first for Kansas, teens ages 14-17 had the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the state. And health officials still warn against large gatherings.

But school officials, including Johnson, said they plan to implement many of the same measures they have in classrooms, including mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing, to keep proms safe.

“We have very little issue with mask compliance,” Johnson said. “Almost every single kid is very used to wearing a mask at this point.

“So it’s no different for them doing it at school or wearing it at the dance.”

Sipes, the North High student, says she received her first dose of the two-part COVID-19 vaccine and plans to get her second dose before prom night.

Even so, North’s prom theme this year is, fittingly, “Masquerade,” and Sipes plans to wear a solid black mask that matches her shoes. Some of her friends plan to dress up their masks with sequins or use extra fabric from their prom dresses to make matching masks.

“I’m excited to have fun, but . . . people are sometimes stupid and don’t wear their mask correctly and maybe don’t social distance like they should,” the 18-year-old said.

“I know that that’s one of the biggest worries that me and my friends have, that people aren’t going to be responsible. So I plan on just keeping my distance from people (and) sticking to my little group.”

After prom was canceled last spring, Sipes and some friends decided to get dressed up anyway. They did their hair and makeup and went downtown near the Keeper of the Plains sculpture, where Sipes’ mom took some photos.

She plans to wear the same dress again and is glad to have somewhere to go.

“I could be there from like 30 minutes to all night,” she said. “But I know that I’m going to be with my friends, so I’m going to have fun.”

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Derek Nester
Derek Nesterhttp://www.sunflowerstateradio.com
Derek Nester was born and raised in Blue Rapids and graduated from Valley Heights High School in 2000. He attended Cowley College in Arkansas City and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park studying Journalism & Media Communications. In 2002 Derek joined Taylor Communications, Inc. in Salina, Kansas working in digital media for 550 AM KFRM and 100.9 FM KCLY. Following that stop, he joined Dierking Communications, Inc. stations KNDY AM & FM as a board operator and fill-in sports play-by-play announcer. Starting in 2005 Derek joined the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network as a Studio Coordinator at 101 The Fox in Kansas City, a role he would serve for 15 years culminating in the Super Bowl LIV Championship game broadcast. In 2020 he moved to Audacy, formerly known as Entercom Communications, Inc. and 106.5 The Wolf and 610 Sports Radio, the new flagship stations of the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network, the largest radio network in the NFL. Through all of this, Derek continues to serve as the Digital Media Director for Sunflower State Radio, the digital and social media operations of Dierking Communications, Inc. and the 6 radio stations it owns and operates across Kansas.

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