Apr. 9—CHEYENNE — When the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person schooling last year, it also forced the cancellation of one of the most anticipated events of the year — prom.
"I was bummed. It's one of the things you look forward to most in high school, especially as a girl," said Kristy Givens, a senior at East High School. This fall, Givens, along with most of her peers, returned to a modified form of in-person learning for her final year of high school, expecting a traditional formal prom event would happen.
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Then, last month, every high schooler in Laramie County School District 1 got an email similar to this one sent to East students, which was obtained by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle:
"East High School would like to inform everyone that Prom at each of the Cheyenne high schools has been (canceled). Instead, each high school will host a semi-formal end-of-year dance," read a notice from Marc Kerschner, assistant principal at East.
East Principal Sam Mirich said the principals of each of the district's three large high schools put serious thought into the decision.
"We're still in the pandemic, and planning out a prom was something we expected to do. But what we didn't want to do is plan a prom and then cancel it," Mirich said, adding that all three schools will meet early next month to plan a modified semi-formal dance that abides by county health orders.
"We wouldn't be expecting kids to dress up formally, so that would be less money. We know a lot of families have been affected by the pandemic and might not have money for an event like that."
Regardless of the reasoning, the idea of missing both junior and senior prom left high schoolers like Givens, who has already picked out a floor-length emerald green gown, upset.
"Senior year wasn't the best already," she said, reflecting on the social distancing, canceled homecoming dance and limited crowds at basketball games.
"To get your prom taken away again — or get the alternative that's not really close to (traditional) prom — really sucked."
That's where an army of parents stepped in.
"Last year, I had a senior who graduated and missed out on everything. It was heartbreaking," said Jamie Buell, an East High parent and paraprofessional educator. She did not want to see that happen again, and knew it was especially important for young women to have the prom experience they've long watched play out in movies and television shows.
"Girls get to dress up twice in their life: for prom and their wedding. Since prom was canceled last year, this senior class would have gone without having that experience at all in their life."
That's why she spearheaded a parent-led effort to organize a formal prom event for East students at Little America Hotel and Resort, which is set for April 24. East's event will have a capacity of 475 students and about 25 chaperones, and they will follow whatever county health guidelines are in place at that time.
The parent-led prom for East students is charging $35 per ticket, but Buell said if anyone can't pay, they will find money to make sure everyone who wants to attend gets to attend. Parents from South High School and Central High School are also orchestrating similar prom events.
But proms can be expensive affairs.
The cost of the venue, decorations, refreshments and DJ adds up, and the event for East has a multi-thousand-dollar price tag. But when word got out about what parents were trying to do, members of Cheyenne's local business community pulled out their checkbooks and made it happen.
"I can't imagine that kids would not be able to go to their own prom," said Julie Smith, co-owner of 911 Roofing Solutions and a 1980 Central High School graduate. She still remembers the high-neck Gunne Sax dress she wore to her prom. "I loved it then, but of course now, if it was still hanging in my closet, I would mortified," Smith said with a chuckle.
Doing hair and makeup with friends, taking posed pictures and going out for a special pre-prom dinner are also a part of her most cherished high school memories. She wants today's high schoolers to have those kind of memories to look back on, so she was happy to donate for the cause of saving prom in 2021.
"It's a memory all kids should have," Smith said. "In a way, this was a gift our community could give to them so they have something good to remember from their last two years in high school."
Kathryn Palmer is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's education reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynbpalmer.