NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– The New Hanover County Board of Education voted Tuesday to allow schools to plan last-minute proms, if they so choose, following stringent health guidance from the state. Put forth by board member Judy Justice, the move is intended to dissuade students from attending alternate dances organized by parents.
Since New Hanover County Schools announced in March there would be no proms for a second year due to the pandemic, parents connected over social media and took it upon themselves to plan parties, unaffiliated with the schools.
“There’s absolutely no safety guidelines that they necessarily have to adhere to,” Justice explained at the board meeting, voicing concern that the outside events would cause an uptick in the transmission of Covid-19 among students.
As a public school system, NHCS must abide by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s “Lighting Our Way Forward” document for any special events. The companion guide to the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit warns traditional proms are a “high-risk activity,” with unvaccinated people joining in large groups.
The state guidance asserts any special event should be planned alongside local health officials. It encourages 6 feet of physical distancing and avoiding mixing households. Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Julie Varnam said the restrictions do not permit dance floors and all attendees would need to remain seated.
“It would be a danceless prom?” board member Nelson Beaulieu asked.
“So?” Justice said.
“I’m just asking,” Beaulieu said.
“A danceless prom with family members,” Superintendent Charles Foust chimed in, “because you can’t mix households.”
Foust questioned whether teachers were surveyed about their interest in chaperoning. Chair Stefanie Adams suggested it is unfair to task the four high school principals with deciding whether to hold the prom, potentially villainizing them if they opt out.
Out of all the board members, Beaulieu was the most vocally in favor of reopening schools in recent months. He often cited a prioritization of mental health over the risks of Covid-19. Still, he argued proms could spark outbreaks, potentially shutting down an entire high school.
“I don’t understand – you advocated for them to be all together in school,” board member Stephanie Walker said. “You’re against this, and it’s the same thing.”
In several votes since December, Walker repeatedly disputed fully reopening schools alongside Justice, yet she supported Justice’s motion.
Board members Pete Wildeboer and Hugh McManus, both former principals, backed Justice as well, while Stephanie Kraybill listed various issues with hosting proms. She suggested it was unlikely teenagers would follow the safety protocols, noting as an example that an adult visitor of the meeting didn’t want to wear a mask that night.
“I mean, I am a party person, and I am a celebrating person and I love prom, and I know these kids do too,” Kraybill clarified, “but I would feel more comfortable with parents doing their own private events so that the school system is not in charge of that.”
Ashley High School parent Cheryl Tyndall is one of the organizers of a private prom, unaffiliated with the school. Tyndall said the organizers are considering conducting health screenings at the door, and are planning on offering hand sanitizer and face coverings to those who show up unmasked. The venue also features an outdoor patio for students to space out, she noted.
“I think it means a lot to have something that’s sort of normal,” Tyndall said. “One of the girls emailed me and she said, ‘It’s just a great way for us to end our senior year.’”
Before planning the prom, Tyndall said she and other parents distributed a survey to see how many students were interested in attending a parent-organized prom. They received 50 responses. Assuming most teenagers would invite a date, they figured it was sufficient demand to move forward.
The most challenging part was finding a venue, Tyndall said, but they eventually secured the Courtyard by Marriott Carolina Beach Oceanfront, just a 12-minute drive from Ashley High. The prom is now appropriately themed “On the Boardwalk.”
The venue is allowing up to 125 people inside, Tyndall said, and tickets are close to selling out. The $35 pass covers the cost of the room, the food, the DJ, decorations, and possibly a photo booth.
Tyndall said she has only heard positive responses and no pushback, so far.
“I’m sure there are probably people that disagree with it,” she said.
Laney High School parents are also arranging a prom dubbed “A Night to Remember” later this month at a Rocky Point wedding venue. A Paris-themed prom for Hoggard High students, organized by a teacher, is scheduled for May at a local church.
Also at the meeting Tuesday, the board of education voted unanimously to remove Rick Holliday’s name from the Laney High stadium and set into motion the 60-day process to rename a facility. For over a year now, community members have called on the district to strip the honor from Holliday.
The resigned deputy superintendent is widely accused of letting former teacher Michael Kelly get away with repeat sexual abuse of minors on school grounds, despite knowledge of the criminal behavior. Holliday has denied all wrongdoing.
After exiting a two-hour closed session, during which board members heard “reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct,” chair Adams spoke briefly ahead of the public comments to offer condolences to Bostian’s family. Bostian killed himself within hours of his arrest.
“I have seen the outpouring of support from our community, and I know that they will continue to do so as those close to David Bostian try to navigate through this difficult time,” Adams said.
She then went on to speak in regard to the allegations against Bostian and Strickland.
“Among all of the hurt and the tragedy that we have experienced, some positive outcomes must emerge,” Adams said. “Everyone within the district is working diligently to eradicate behavior that harms students.”
The chairperson commended Foust for his leadership and called on school staff to report any concerns related to student safety.
“All too often we focus on the handful who are not following our procedures, but so many of you are already doing the right thing. And for that, I have the utmost appreciation,” Adams finished.
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