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With Pa. schools now closed indefinitely, what happens with proms and graduations?

South Western High’s Mustangs arrive for their 2019 prom Saturday, May 18. Murphy Altland photo

South Western postponed its prom, and districts throughout York County are pondering  the same thing, after Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday extended his school closure order indefinitely.

The coronavirus outbreak has canceled dozens of events in York County. Closed since March 16, Wolf's order on Monday raised the prospect that some rites of passage, namely prom and graduation, could be threatened at public school districts throughout the state.

“What does indefinitely truly mean? The remainder of the school year? Mid-May?” said Dover Area spokesman Brad Perkins. That district's junior-senior prom is slated for May 2, according to the school calendar.

Dover Area officials had been discussing what to do about prom and graduation daily, sometimes several times a day, prior to Wolf's latest announcement, Perkins said.

Schools had been scheduled to reopen as early as April 6 before Monday's order. Now, they're closed until further notice, adding another unknown into event planning.

Officials in Virginia and Kansas have already said that public schools in those states will not reopen this school year.

At South Western, students will be surveyed about a new date for prom, with consideration for seniors heading directly into the military or workforce after graduation who have less flexibility for a rescheduling, Superintendent Jay Burkhart said. 

"I want to take a wait-and-see because I don’t want to do anything prematurely," he said about canceling and rescheduling spring events, noting some cancellations might not end up being necessary.

Between sending Chromebooks to students and working out how to achieve continuity of learning in a new setting, "I think that’s at the forefront of their thoughts," not spring events, said West York Area board Vice President Jeanne Herman.

“I know many of them are bummed,” said Herman of student reactions in the past weeks over potentially losing their once-in-a-lifetime events. 

It's reflected in their social media posts, and posts from teachers telling them to "hang in there," she said.

Prom is a student-led activity, said York Suburban High School Principal Brian Ellis. At his district, and at South Western, upperclass student officers would be consulted on what to do about prom and selecting new dates, if needed. 

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Schools have their hands full with the coronavirus. Early on, there were questions of whether districts were permitted to offer classes online. The state now says they can. 

Maintaining some semblance of educational efficacy is the primary focus right now, Ellis said. Spring events, such as proms and graduations, are secondary.

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“Honestly, we have not been focusing a whole lot on that," he said, when reached Monday before Wolf's closure extension.

York Suburban is lucky, Ellis said, as its prom is not scheduled until May 15, but if things continue to go the way they have been, with coronavirus cases rising daily, “we certainly will have to look at an alternative,” he said.

The need for that alternative has likely come — with no set date for students to return.

“I know this isn’t easy to hear, " Wolf said in a news conference Monday afternoon. "We humans are built to want to work, to want to learn, to want to socialize."

Before Wolf's announcement, Ellis said his district would wait a few weeks to hear recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in mid-April.

“It doesn’t really change anything,” Ellis said in a text message following Wolf's announcement. “We’ll worry about the impact on the events closer to that time."

That could mean postponing events to a summer date, which is not out of the question for prom or other senior events, as sometimes graduation ceremonies take place weeks after the end of school year if necessary, he said.

Students arrive at the Susquehannock High School Prom at the Valencia Ballroom Saturday, May 4, 2019. Bill Kalina photo

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Northeastern High School Principal Matthew Gay said district officials are doing everything they can to ensure these events can take place once it's safe, including several contingency plans with the prom venue.

"This has definitely been on our minds," Gay wrote in a message to seniors prior to Wolf's announcement Monday.

"Seniors around the country are losing out on important events related to the end of their school careers, and we feel horrible about that," he said to them.