Oyster River Presents its Plan for the 2021 Gala Event

With the pandemic leading to the cancellation of our traditional high school events like Mr. Bobcat and Spirit Week, it’s safe to say that the 2020-2021 school year has been anything but normal. As May quickly approaches, we are all beginning to wonder the same thing: will prom happen this year?

This year, the Prom Planning Committee has decided to host a Gala for both the junior and senior classes in place of a traditional prom. Advised by Barbara Milliken, the committee has been collaborating for weeks to design a prom-like event that adheres to state and school administration COVID-19 restrictions. Cleverly announced as a “Mask-erade Under the Stars,” this outdoor event will prioritize student and teacher safety while providing students with the in-person opportunity to bond with their class before the end of the school year. The Gala will be hosted on the ORHS turf field and will be a formal event where students may dress up like they typically would for prom. As of now, the Senior Gala will be on May 5th from 7:00 to 9:00 in the evening with a rain date of May 8th. The Junior Gala is scheduled to take place the following week on May 12th from 7:00 to 9:00 in the evening with a rain date of May 22nd. 

“This year will be very different because COVID has sort of determined what our event is going to look like,” said Milliken. She explained that, with so many safety concerns, it’s been difficult to recreate the same prom that has traditionally been hosted in the past. After all, the very nature of the event itself is based around gathering all together as a class and being close with one another. The Gala Planning Committee’s hope is to preserve as much normalcy as possible and to present our juniors and seniors with a new safe and exciting event.

The goals this year for the Gala are very different from the goals of past proms. Rachel Rowley (‘22), a member of the Gala Planning Committee, said that the biggest hope is just “to give something to the students this year for prom.” Rowley explained that it has been difficult for Student Government and administration to create opportunities for student bonding this year due to safety concerns and school liability, so the main goal is to host an event that will bring the junior and senior classes together. 

Since prom is such a major (and expensive) event, brainstorming and fundraising typically begins in early October. Because of the constant changes in the pandemic, and a lack of opportunity to coordinate these fundraisers, the budget for the Gala this year is much lower than it has been in past years. “We are still figuring out the details, but we’re focusing on using as little budget as we can because we don’t have the resources to go full-out on decorations,” says Rowley. This does not imply that the event will be any less exciting, it just means that there will be minor cuts to some of the more expensive aspects of prom such as the decorations, venue, and favors. In an effort to encourage students to attend, the event has no admission charge.

One of the biggest differences of this year’s event is the separation of classes and new invitation policy. “Because of the COVID-19 numbers and the fact that already we’re pushing the limits just with our classes, the event will be class-specific. You can’t invite outside guests, or students [from different grades]… we have to be really stringent about our rules because of COVID-19,” explained Milliken. Though the bonding between the two classes has been a major aspect of prom in the past, in an effort to reduce the number of attendees, this year’s event will only admit Oyster River juniors and seniors at their respective events.

Social distancing and mask wearing will be mandatory at the Gala, and students who do not comply will be asked to leave. “There’s a lot of talk that we’re doing right now to ensure student safety. We’re not going to be able to allow students to get within six feet of each other and nobody can consume any food or drink,” said KK Kalinowski (‘22), Junior Class President. She explained that all common surfaces will be sanitized throughout the event to avoid indirect transmission of the virus, as well. This year’s venue will be outdoors on the Oyster River turf field, with the promise of next year’s prom taking place at the Red Barn, according to Milliken.

To ensure that students are adhering to these COVID-19 guidelines, teachers and other members of administration will be chaperoning at the Gala. Senior Class President, Ella Gianino (‘21), emphasized the importance of student responsibility in regards to safety during the event. “Administration can only do so much. Ultimately, at the end of the day, the responsibility to keep everyone safe falls on the individual,” she said.

Even with the many differences this year due to safety concerns, students still have high hopes for the event. “I was really looking forward to the dancing part and I’m hoping that’s able to happen,” said Evy Ashburner (‘22). Fortunately, this aspect of prom is accounted for in the plan for this year’s Gala.

“We’ll have a DJ on the field, so the whole field will be used for socially distanced dancing… right now we’re brainstorming ways to ensure that it is socially distanced,” said Milliken. Rowley mentioned that the committee is currently discussing the idea of spacing out hula hoops on the turf as a means to keep students six feet apart.

In addition to dancing, the committee is planning special activities for students to participate in during the event. One new aspect that will be included in this year’s Gala is the grand march, a ceremony where students will be given the opportunity to show off their formal attire and have their photo taken. Traditionally, students will then have their names announced as they walk down a decorated promenade. “We haven’t decided whether parents will be there to take pictures [since] that would raise our numbers or if it will be livestreamed,” said Milliken.

Another activity that will be included in this year’s Gala is the student creation of a “memory wall.” Juniors and seniors will be given the opportunity to decorate walls with their signatures and drawings, and will be able to take pictures in front of them. “It will be like a yearbook where everyone signs it,” explained Milliken. In addition to the memory wall and grand march, the committee is in the process of designing other activities for the Gala that will remain as a surprise. 

As with designing any event in a pandemic, the plans for the Gala may change with time as COVID-19 numbers rise or fall in the community. “Every bit of normalcy that we can preserve would be a blessing. Hopefully as we go along the year and things get better, guidelines will lighten up a bit and we’ll be able to take a couple steps closer to that,” said Gianino. As May approaches, more vaccines may be distributed and numbers may be lower; this may reduce some of the restrictions and make the event feel more like those of past years.

“I think that prom has more importance to people this year than any year before. It is clear that people are itching to see each other and have one final chance to all be together and celebrate our experience at Oyster River,” said Liam Ashburner (‘21). Especially since high school classes have been deprived of opportunities to bond with each other due to the restrictions of the pandemic, students like Ashburner are especially looking forward to attending an event that celebrates being with each other.

The Gala Planning Committee encourages juniors and seniors to voice their ideas for the Gala by giving input to its members. “We want as much input as we can get. It’s your [Gala], it’s your event. It’s there for you to enjoy, so drop in any ideas you have and we’ll try to make it work,” said Rowley. 

There’s no doubt that this year’s event will be different than any other, but the sentiment of the prom-like event will stay the same. As Gianino said, “it is a culminating high school experience that we all look forward to.”