For countless communities across the United States, homecoming means much more than a school dance or “fall prom.” From football games to the coronation of teenage queens and kings, to parades that draw huge crowds, these are traditions with deep connections and significance. That’s no doubt why, with the country still in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, schools — even those not yet fully back in the classroom — are determined that the show must go on. Figuring out what exactly that show entails in the age of social distancing and masks, however, has required plenty of flexibility and outside-of-the-box thinking, resulting in events that marry time-honored traditions with 2020 pragmatism.
While restrictions on large gatherings have varied from state to state, official school-sponsored homecoming dances have for the most part been a casualty of the pandemic, though there are reports of parents hosting their own celebrations at local hotels and restaurants. Some schools have also had their homecoming football games unexpectedly postponed or canceled due to positive COVID-19 results among athletes. Others are taking advantage of the football field’s outdoor environment and large space to host homecoming court presentations and games that are safely scaled back, but still have a semblance of normalcy.
Read on to see the creative lengths some schools are taking to make homecoming happen this year.
Marching bands, cheerleaders, floats decked out in school colors ... homecoming parades have long been considered an annual highlight not only for school communities but local residents past and present, too. In order to keep them going amid the pandemic, schools across the country have adopted a trendy tweak: the reverse parade.
As its name suggests, the reverse parade involves having attendees drive past stationery floats and displays created by students, rather than cheering on from the sidelines as those floats stream past. Though it had to cancel its dance and powder puff game, on Oct. 9, Smithville High School in Smithville, Mo. managed to keep their parade, complete with masked cheerleaders and spaced-out displays.
“We are very proud of the way this activity played out and allowed our students and community to still be involved and feel the thrills of homecoming in these unusual circumstances,” assistant principal Monica Leary tells Yahoo Life.
Related: Ohio Mayor on reverse parade for Independence Day amid pandemic
Business teacher and student organization lead sponsor Shirl Nichols adds that students “have approached this year as an opportunity to innovate within guidelines — a lifelong skill to teach and learn.” That ability to pivot also saw a modified, students-only homecoming football game, where the homecoming queen was crowned at halftime, and a pep rally that was streamed online for non-students.
While homecoming dances have largely been scrapped amid the pandemic, Red Oak School District in Red Oak, Iowa was able to pull off an alfresco formal held on the tennis courts of its junior-senior high school. “We didn’t want to take anything more away from the kids, because they’ve already had so much taken away from them,” assistant principal Justin Williams tells Yahoo Life of the plan to charge ahead with a dance, albeit one with a mask requirement and party-goers formed into pods.
Capping a homecoming week that included a reverse parade and coronation ceremony and football game following COVID-19 protocols, the Sept. 26 party was limited to students in grades 9 to 12, who were, at the advice of local health authorities, assembled into pods of 25. Attendees had their assigned pod number marked on their hands; no mingling between the socially distanced pods was allowed. And while the dress code was formal, protecting the recently resurfaced tennis courts from being scuffed up meant insisting upon sneakers over dress shoes. “The kids kind of got into it, wearing their nice skirts and dresses and suits with their favorite pair of tennis shoes,” says Williams. “It was pretty funny to watch [them] come in.”
Despite the adjustments, he says the evening was a success, thanks in part to “beautiful” weather in the 80s. With the school, which has a population of around 350 students, currently undergoing a hybrid learning model, students were “really grateful that they could have this,” says Williams.
“It was just really super-awesome of our kids to be as positive as they were with all the changing circumstances.”
Generally considered the anchor of a school’s homecoming festivities, the homecoming football game has, not unlike the NFL, been a mixed bag this year. While the lower-risk outdoor environment and option to socially distance in large stadiums is a plus, exposures and positive cases among players and staff have resulted in canceled and postponed games, from Michigan to Alabama. For those schools that are able to go ahead as planned, insisting upon socially distancing seating or limiting attendance to students only seems to be the general rule of thumb.
Another option is the drive-in football game, which allows a wider audience to view the game from the safety of their cars. For example, on Oct. 9, Waukesha North High School in Wisconsin set up a 30-foot screen streaming the big game in the school parking lot, with reservations required for any football fans who wanted to catch the action in real-time. The game was also streamed live on Facebook.
Virtual Scavenger Hunts
With a pep rally and dance nixed thanks to newly announced state restrictions, and the fate of the game uncertain given recent COVID-related cancelations, homecoming at Vilonia High School in Vilonia, Ark. this year won’t have quite the same fanfare — but it certainly won’t be short on school spirit. Library media teacher and organizer Terina Atkins tells Yahoo Life that, in lieu of a formal on Halloween night, the school is instead throwing its homecoming budget behind a selfie scavenger hunt, with $1,000 worth of gift cards to area restaurants up for grabs.
Atkins says there are currently 45 items on the list, with challenges ranging from taking a selfie with a crown, to posing alongside an eagle, the school mascot, to supporting a local business. Students who text in their photos are entered into an ongoing raffle for a gift card. Though it’s not what organizers had originally hoped for, Atkins notes that the virtual approach feels somewhat fitting in the era of remote learning; Vilonia’s nearly 1,000-strong student body is currently doing a mix of online classes, on-site and hybrid this school year.
“That’s the beauty of doing this virtually,” she says of the homecoming scavenger hunt. “Even if they’re not here on campus, they can still do a lot of these.”
The crowning of a homecoming queen and king, as well as other student members of the homecoming court, is yet another sacred tradition, and one that schools have handled in myriad ways amid the pandemic: With masks or without; with dates as usual, or with just parents as escorts so as not to go outside a student’s personal bubble; held indoors or out; in-person or virtually.
As with its virtual homecoming scavenger hunt, Arkansas’s Vilonia High School is leaning on technology for its celebration slated for the end of the month. While its court would traditionally be presented at a pep rally, that event has been canceled due to the pandemic, paving the way for a creative workaround, organizer Terina Atkins tells Yahoo Life.
“We’ll film the boys walking, and we’ll film the girls walking separately, and we’re going to splice them together,” she shares. “It’s usually the girl walking with a guy on either side of her, so we’re filming those separately and splicing them together. It’ll just be a little virtual thing.”
The footage will be filmed and digitally altered ahead of time, with the announcement of this year’s queen being packaged as a virtual presentation students can watch from home. There will then be an on-the-field presentation in which the homecoming queen and princesses walk out with their fathers, thus eliminating the need for a mask, Atkins says.
“We’ve seen some other schools where they go ahead and let them walk [with dates outside their bubble], but they have their masks on,” she explains. “But these girls didn’t do all this primping and paying all this money for their hair, and the makeup and those beautiful ballgowns just to have a mask on.”
On the other hand, those queens that want to mask up but make it formal need look no further than the “mask mum.” In Texas, it’s tradition for girls to wear “mums” — the more elaborate the better — during homecoming. Typically, the look entails an artificial floral mum accented with long reams of ribbons in one’s school colors, plus plastic charms (a cheerleading megaphone, a football), glittery stick-on letters and the occasional photo button featuring the date or football player dreamboat of one’s choice.
It’s perhaps inevitable that the 2020 homecoming season is seeing a COVID-inspired twist: mask mums. Florists and designers in the Lone Star State are doing a brisk trade in sparkly face masks adorned with mini mums and ribbons galore. It’s a little bit Dr. Fauci, a little bit flash — though the jury’s still out on what the CDC makes of it.
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