December 2, 2021

Back to normal, almost

Year-end school events to resemble pre-COVID era

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Jason Lilley, an owner of The Cortland Flower Shop, holds a rose Thursday. With an increasing number of people vaccinated against COVID-19 and pandemic restrictions easing, schools’ end-of-the-year events like prom are returning — at least in some fashion.

Prom, senior awards and graduation can be some of the largest and most memorable events for high schoolers before they end their secondary education careers.

Last year, those events were either canceled (prom), or changed (senior awards and graduation) because of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, a year later, with restrictions eased and nearly a third of the county’s residents fully vaccinated, end-of-the-year events at high schools in Cortland County will either return to what they were — or at at least resemble what they were pre-pandemic.

“They will look back and see that their senior year was in a pandemic but wasn’t ruined by it,” said John Zarcone, the Cortland High School grade 11 and 12 principal.


Some parts of the high school experience could be done remotely, Zarcone said. Prom was not one of them.

“Prom was really the only thing you couldn’t modify it any other way,” he said.

That will be different this year. The event May 21 will take place at the John Joseph Inn in Groton, he said. Students will be required to wear masks whenever they are not sitting at their table to eat. Additionally, students will only be allowed to dance with people at their tables — which will be grouped in pods. And those pods will be spaced 6 feet apart from each other when dancing.

Only seniors from the school will be allowed to attend this year, a change from years past where other grades, graduates and students from other districts have attended, Zarcone said.

The plans followed discussions with the high school student senate and student council, along with discussions from other seniors, he said.

Canceling prom last year was a big loss for students and parents, Zarcone said, and he sympathized with not being able to hold it. But, he added, it was “a time when the whole world was upside down.”

And while the pandemic isn’t over, having prom this year shows “we’re getting somewhere” in returning to normal.

“I just hope it provides them with some good positive memories of their senior year,” Zarcone said.


As proms were canceled last year, corsage and boutonniere sales were essentially non-existent, said Jason Lilley, a co-owner of The Cortland Flower Shop. Prom makes up a lot of the store’s business in late spring.

“I think people are excited for it,” Lilley said of this year’s event. “I really do.”

While colors of flowers on corsages and boutonnieres change per couple, Lilley said that almost all boutonnieres consist of a single rose and almost all corsages are worn on wrists.

Even though prom is a month away for Cortland High School, Lilley’s shop has already seen orders start picking up for corsages and boutonnieres. He’s been ordering mini roses and ribbons in preparation.

John Hamilton, owner of the John Joseph Inn, said events, including weddings and Cortland High School’s prom, are returning.

“Overall, we’re getting back to it, and we’re excited for the opportunity to do so,” he said.

To accommodate the students, the prom will be outside in a tent that can hold up to 400 people, he said.

While Hamilton likes to keep the maximum capacity closer to 300, that is almost double the number of Cortland High School seniors, providing for lots of social distancing.

Hamilton said his staff is diligent in following state COVID-19 health guidelines including requiring contact tracing.

While he mostly hosts weddings, Hamilton said he’s happy to host Cortland’s prom this year.

“Ultimately, our goal is to have this prom and give these kids the best possible experience,” he said.


As year-end events such as prom returns, so will another important year-end event, graduation, at least at Homer Central High School, said Principal Doug VanEtten.

Like last year, the ceremony will take place outside on Butts Field, he said. Unlike last year, the district plans one ceremony with all the graduates instead of five smaller groups across one day.

Additionally, loosened restrictions will allow each graduate to have up to four guests.

More details will be worked out and further changes in COVID-19 restrictions could change the number of guests allowed and other areas, VanEtten said.

In place of a traditional prom, Homer will have a senior ball inside the high school gym, VanEtten said. He is taking advice from students on how best to have the event, which will include spending money to decorate the gym.

Contact between students, though, won’t be permissible so a key aspect of the dance will be missing.

“We won’t have kids slow dancing,” he said. “We will work with them on that.”

Additionally, no meal will be served to prevent potential spreading of the virus, he said, breaking from past traditions.

VanEtten said he hopes the seniors “can enjoy time with one another” and not have to worry about tests or other school-related work.

As the district brings an in-person senior ball in place of prom and brings back a modified in-person senior banquet to precede graduation, VanEtten said he hopes the seniors will be able to get the most enjoyment out of these events.

“I hope our seniors realize how proud we are of their achievements and the journey they continue on in the larger world,” he said.