Northland Preparatory Academy’s Homecoming Dance had all the makings of a traditional masquerade-themed school dance — energetic students, observant teacher chaperones, decorated venue and formal attire with masks — but with a twist unique to 2020, the masks were not just costumes and the venue was the school parking lot.
NPA high schoolers were invited to return to their school campus Friday during one of two time slots for a Homecoming dance in small groups of no more than 10, their noses and mouths covered according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to reduce COVID-19 transmission.
“We love being with other people at this point because we’re all online and I know at least for seniors, it’s really hard. We’re probably going to graduate online, which is horrible, but it is what it is,” said student council member Leah Richardson, 17, who led the event’s organization. “My goal was just so everyone can see each other, maybe for the last time.”
She and a friend spent two hours on a weeknight before the dance measuring out socially distanced circles where students could dance. A total of 10 circles were created in chalk, with 9 feet of distance between each of them.
“I really wanted a Homecoming, because it’s my last one,” Richardson said. “We already had our prom last year canceled. A lot of things were canceled that we were planning for the end of last year and I was like, 'we’re going to make this happen, I don’t care what it’s going to take.'”
On the day of the dance, she and other student council members covered the chalk circles with intertwined tulle and string lights (originally planned for use at prom this spring), marking clear barriers for small groups of the roughly 100 students, about a third of NPA’s total high schoolers, who signed up for the two events.
Preregistration limited the capacity per time slot to 60 students, who parked at Sinagua Middle School and were shuttled to NPA to reduce the number of people in the NPA parking lot at one time. Along with their tickets, students were required to bring a signed COVID-19 consent form featuring a lengthy list of requirements including being symptom-free before arrival, completing a temperature check and health screening, wearing a mask throughout the event, using the hand sanitizer stations posted at each circle and remaining in their group’s designated area unless escorted by a chaperone.
“I haven’t had to ask a single one of these kids to pull their mask up or put it on, so that’s been pretty awesome,” said English teacher and student council co-adviser Dayne Pratt during the second half of the event. “I think the consent form and the emphasis on how important it was to have that and follow it made a difference.”
Physics teacher Stephen Zawicki, the student council’s other co-adviser, said he and Pratt were hesitant about the event at first, considering all the health and safety procedures that would need to be implemented, but nevertheless wanted to do what they could to make it work.
“I think for what we could do, we have a definite success here,” Zawicki said.
Attendees were primarily upperclassmen who were eager see their longtime classmates after a semester of online learning through Zoom videoconferencing.
“A lot of us have been together since sixth grade, so it’s definitely a family,” said senior Natalie Hansen, 17. “It’s weird -- it’s strange interacting with people and seeing people, but I’m so thankful that we were able to do this and that I can see my friends and see my family without being scared of COVID.”
Leo Brown and Dana Lieb-Perry, 17, who were part of one enthusiastic group of dancers Friday evening, said the event was a pleasant surprise, especially this year.
“A lot of stressful hours went into making this, but I’m glad it happened,” Brown said. “I think it’s pretty realistic, with the social distancing guidelines, but I’m having a ton of fun and I’m really glad it happened for our senior year.”
“It’s really bizarre,” Lieb-Perry said of the 2020-21 school year. “We don’t get any of the normal senior stuff, so it almost doesn’t feel like we’re seniors. If I wasn’t doing college stuff, I would not feel like I was a senior.”
Student Council President Mia Blair, 18, said the council, which typically plans school dances, did not get the go-ahead for the Homecoming event until early October, when in a normal year it would have been planned over the summer.
“We had to plan and re-plan, based on a lot of obstacles,” said Blair, explaining concerns about hosting the dance indoors in a crowded space during the pandemic. She said the team tried to keep the price low, at only $5 a ticket for one dance or $7 for both compared to the normal $20, in order to encourage more students who felt comfortable gathering to participate. “It’s given me a greater appreciation for things like this, when we do get to come together as our NPA community and as our NPA family, to some degree.”
Superintendent David Lykins said the event was planned with guidance from Coconino County Health and Human Services. Lykins was supportive of the event because he said it would safely give students a chance for the social interaction they have been missing.
He said the school team hopes to be able to use a similar process to create a middle school intramural sports program, with small groups meeting outside for socially distanced activities such as kickball. The program could start in January, pending local COVID-19 transmission rates.
“We have some sixth graders who only know their classmates on Zoom,” Lykins said. “We want to create some opportunities that are safe that aren’t attached to curriculum, so nobody has to come, but we can give kids some connection.”
As a first attempt to reconnect students in this way, the Homecoming Dance seemed a success: the camaraderie was visible among high schoolers Friday as groups bounded to the beat of the music, played card games and simply talked and laughed, their adherence to COVID-19 protocols almost as natural as their reunion with friends.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at email@example.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.