When the dancing started, seniors at Menlo-Atherton High School's "Enchanted Forest" prom on Friday, May 7, crowded the dance "floor." Overall, seniors say they felt safe at an event that gave them a rare chance to gather and celebrate after more than a year of social isolation.
About 250 seniors attended the event on the Atherton school's soccer field, which featured a dance floor, cornhole and spikehole games, a photo booth, pizza and snacks, said M-A Principal Simone Rick-Kennel. There were socially distanced tables for students.
Senior Connor Low, 18, said it was his first high school dance and he "never felt unsafe at any time."
"If there was a part that was unsafe, the mosh pit was, because people were on top of each other," he said. "Even then, I never saw a mask off, but I'm only one guy."
Low said he's glad seniors got to experience prom and that it felt a "little bit like a dream" after a year of COVID-19 lockdowns.
This was a seniors-only prom without guests, Rick-Kennel said, and many of the seniors have already been vaccinated.
She said the school followed all protocols and county guidance, including having students agree to the school's standard COVID-19 safe contract in order to attend. Students filled out a health screening on an app before entering prom.
After the event, Rick-Kennel said in an email that administrators expected teenagers would dance closer than the distancing requirements, similar to what happens during lunch breaks during the school day when school staff have to remind students to keep distanced.
"We asked the DJ to consistently remind them of both distancing and keeping masks up," she said. "Yes, there were times they danced closer than we liked but the reminders helped. All students complied with masks and reminders to lift them up if they took a breather. And that was very few in my observation. Students were well-behaved, appreciative, grateful and happy they had a prom. I did not see any student not comply with masking or a request to lift their mask up."
Although the DJ told partygoers to put their masks back on, The Almanac's photographer observed that some students left them off, and some pulled them down or put them away when they danced under the disco ball in front of the DJ's stage.
Several teens told The Almanac that they felt safe at the event and didn't see many students going maskless.
Student body president and senior Annika Abdella, 18, said being able to get together with fellow seniors — some of whom didn't return to campus this spring — for the first time in a "very long time" was nice.
"It could have definitely been better (mask wearing)," she said. "Everyone just looked really nice. I love to dance so I enjoyed that."
Senior Ally Mediratta, 18, said she wasn't expecting prom to happen this year, so she thought it was exciting that seniors got an event like that before graduation.
"It was definitely unconventional, but you could tell that leadership put a lot of effort into it, and I think it was pretty successful," she said in an email. "Everyone was diligent about wearing their masks the whole time, so I wasn't really worried about COVID and felt like it was pretty safe."
Senior Spencer Lin, 17, said that his best memories from the event were catching up with people he hadn't seen in over a year. He said for the most part, students wore their masks.
"Some people put them on their chins," he said, and it got "pretty crowded" near the stage, but most people were responsible.
Following the prom, parents sent several complimentary emails to administrators saying students had a great time, a sentiment heard from the students themselves as they left the dance and thanked staff, Rick-Kennel said.
San Mateo County was still in the orange tier of coronavirus restrictions last week, which allows outdoor private events with modifications including: attendance limited to a maximum of 100 unless attendees show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or full vaccination, which boosts the maximum up to 300 people.
The county health department's spokesman Preston Merchant said the county's policy is not to comment on individual facilities, including schools.
"Hosts of public and private events are expected to follow state and relevant industry guidelines," he said in an email.
Other nearby proms canceled, modified
Although Palo Alto schools plan to host in-person graduations, prom is off the table, much to the disappointment of some students and parents.
Los Altos High's upcoming "Seniors Under the Stars" prom on Saturday, May 15, will be held on the school's football field. Although there won't be dancing, there will be a senior talent show, according to the school. Students must stay in their assigned seats they can choose who will sit at their table using an app and can't mingle with other pods. Servers will bring food to tables.
Mountain View High School's prom, also on May 15, won't include a dance floor at its carnival-themed event, which will take place on the campus' main quad and science quad, according to the school's leadership group. There will be carnival games, mini golf, a DJ and food trucks. Unlike LAHS, Mountain View students will be able to move around.
Chief Visual Journalist Magali Gauthier contributed to this report.