Live dancing. A crowd of people in the audience looking on as graduates receive their diplomas.
Those were two scenarios that did not happen in 2020 at Mitchell High School, thanks to the outbreak of COVID-19, which sidelined events of all types big and small as the year-long pandemic turned life upside down for millions across the country and globe.
But they will happen again this spring at the Corn Palace, when prom and graduation return to closer facsimiles of their traditional formats, with both events returning as live in-person events.
Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District, said a year of navigating the waters of a school in the midst of a once-in-a-century disease outbreak has helped prepare faculty, staff and students to bring back the yearly traditions in a way that more closely resembles what Mitchell students have experienced for decades.
“We are definitely having prom,” Graves told the Mitchell Republic recently. “Unless there's some major intervening factor, like a massive (COVID-19) spike.”
While prom will return after its full cancelation last year and graduation will return to a format that more closely resembles what students are used to, there will be some significant differences from how the two events will be held.
For prom, masks will be required and the number of spectators allowed at the grand march event will be greatly reduced, Graves said. Once the grand march is completed, the spectators will depart and the students and chaperones will remain to have the 2021 prom. For those who do not wish to attend the grand march to observe, the event will also be live streamed to anyone who wishes to view it online.
“We’re going to require that everyone mask, and at the grand march we’re going to reduce the number of spectators significantly so that people can socially distance. They’ll also be required to wear a mask,” Graves said. “Once the grand march is done, everybody but the prom-goers will leave and we’ll have our prom.”
The event will return to its traditional venue at the Corn Palace. It is currently scheduled for April 17 at 7 p.m.
The return of prom is a significant achievement for the district and a welcome return to a semblance of normalcy for the students after so many activities were canceled last year due to health safety concerns, Graves said.
“The students are delighted. I think everybody is very happy that we’re getting back to normal,” Graves said.
Graduation, which was held in a virtual format last year, will return to a live event format this year, albeit with a reduced public attendance and the now-common stipulations that those in attendance perform best practices in terms of health safety.
“It will be quite similar (to prom). We’ll have graduation at the Corn Palace with the students all present. We’re going to restrict the number of spectators who can attend, and that’s disappointing, but we’re also going to livestream that as well so that those who absolutely can’t make it and really want to see it can do so,” Graves said.
Also returning the Corn Palace this year, the 2021 Mitchell High School graduation ceremony will be held May 23 at 2 p.m.
As with most activities over the past year, the plans for prom and graduation are tentative pending the situation of the COVID-19 outbreak at the time of the event. While the Mitchell School District has seen an overall drop and relatively low infection numbers as the pandemic has progressed, a recent uptick in cases in the district has school officials monitoring the situation.
That latest COVID-19 report issued by the school last week indicates 35 active cases of the disease at the five district schools. Of those cases, 18 have been reported at Mitchell Middle School, seven at Mitchell High School, seven at L.B. Williams Elementary School, two at Longfellow Elementary School and one at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School.
Graves noted that it is unknown if the increase in cases is connected to the arrival of a new strain of the disease, a second wave of the disease as has been seen in other states or some other factor, though the increases in the cases in the district appears to mirror similar increases in other parts of the state at this time.
“There is always the possibility that if we were to have a massive second wave hit that we might have to adjust,” Graves said.
One factor that is likely to help ensure the events go off as planned is the vaccination rate of district staff. Graves said the events can’t go on without the support and volunteerism, and with most of the staff having received at least one dose of a vaccine, they are more likely to be healthy and ready to help out.
“A definite plus that we’re seeing is all the staff that have been vaccinated, and once all those vaccinations are complete, we’ll feel more confidence,” Graves said.
Graves did not have the number of staff members receiving a dose of the vaccine, but he said that any district employee that wanted one has received at least one dose at this time.
For now, plans for both events are full steam ahead, and it will be a return of two events to the format that makes them such enjoyable experiences for both students and their families, Graves said.
“It was a terrible thing that we didn’t have it last year, frankly,” Graves said.