Inland schools, families get creative to stage proms during coronavirus pandemic

Sparkling formal dresses and dapper suits, flashing lights from the photo booth, colorful balloons, awkward first dates and lively students on the dance floor. These are all treasured memories of high school prom night.

But this school year, the coronavirus pandemic made the timeless tradition difficult to celebrate. Despite the limitations, many Inland Empire high schools modified their events to keep prom night alive. Other schools canceled proms because of safety concerns, leading some parents to stage their own.

Elvira Aceves, an 18-year-old San Bernardino High School senior, attended an Italian-themed formal dinner on campus Friday night, May 28. The event, similar to a prom, required masks and social distancing and drew nearly 100 seniors and their families. Aceves said it was “emotional” and “touching” as the last official on-campus event for her class — even if it wasn’t a “traditional” prom at a venue.

“This school year was like being flipped upside down, cut cold turkey,” said Aceves, who will attend UCLA on a full scholarship. “I still wanted our (class) to have something to look back on, even in a pandemic. We entered high school as freshmen already thinking about our prom night. It’s one of the milestones we waited for and will look back on and show our kids our photos, 20 or so years from now.”

  • San Bernardino High School’s formal dinner Friday, May 28, 2021, had upscale touches and an Italian meal. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • San Bernardino High School graduate Andy Bourland, 18, left, and mother Kathy applaud efforts of the class at the formal dinner Friday, May 28, 2021. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • San Bernardino High School formal dinner guest Melissa Hughey, 18, walks the red carpet Friday, May 28, 2021, at the school. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Ivan Cruz, 18, left, and Ariana Aceves, 16, laugh Friday, May 28, 2021, when they didn’t win the raffle at San Bernardino High School’s formal dinner. Cruz stayed up until 4 a.m. creating the class slideshow. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • “I can’t say enough good things about the students,” Kim Imbriani, event planning instructor, said of San Bernardino High School’s formal dinner, held Friday, May 28, 2021. She has worked on 16 proms and many school rallies, homecoming winter formals and other events. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Nova Jarvis, 18, left, and mother Nicki take a selfie at San Bernardino High School’s formal dinner Friday, May 28, 2021. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Arianna Moore, 17, and all other grads receives a rose at San Bernardino High’s prom on Friday, May 28, 2021. She, like many, sat with parents and siblings for an Italian dinner. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Maria Quila is a winner and receives a San Bernardino High shirt at the school’s prom on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • The “Mayor of Cardinal City,” Elvira Aceves, 18, gives a farewell speech at San Bernardino High School’s formal dinner Friday, May 28, 2021. She was accepted to five universities, but chose UCLA, where she’ll study political science. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • San Bernardino High Principal Antoinette Gutierrez takes pictures at each table during the prom on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • She’s the Valedictorian, parents Hermila, left, and Aldo say smiling of their daughter Cynthia, 18, at San Bernardino High’s prom on Friday, May 28, 2021. Cynthia wants to be a costume designer and freelance illustrator. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Graduate Nova Jarvis, 18, left, and mom Nicki exchange smiles at San Bernardino High’s prom on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)



San Bernardino High Events Director Kim Imbriani said the formal dinner — which included a DJ and food catered by an Italian restaurant — aimed to give seniors a treasured final school memory on campus.

“They already missed out on so much, and didn’t get that rite of passage every other graduate gets,” Imbriani said. “These students deserve to feel special. You don’t get to relive your senior year.”

Proms survive pandemic

While many Inland school districts, like Aceves’ have held outdoor, socially distant formal events and dances, others scrapped proms due to coronavirus concerns.

These include the Corona-Norco Unified, Murrieta Valley, Rialto, Hemet and Yucaipa-Calimesa school districts — all of which prohibited proms to follow state health department guidelines that limit the number of attendees and mandate physical distancing, COVID-19 testing or proof of vaccinations. Also, teenagers weren’t eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine until April.

Alongside in-person graduation ceremonies, some schools in these districts held events to honor seniors, such as on-campus Grad Nights, several district representatives said.

Corona-Norco schools had planned a drive-thru Prom on Wheels at the OC Fair and Event Center in Costa Mesa, but the venue became a vaccination site and the event was canceled, spokeswoman Brittany Foust said.

Other Inland school districts — including the Chino Valley, San Bernardino, San Jacinto, Bonita and Temecula Valley school districts — held formal prom, or prom-like, events for seniors. Students had to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines, officials said.

Chaparral, Great Oak and Temecula Valley high schools in Temecula staged a joint tri-school senior prom Friday, May 28, at Temecula Valley High’s outdoor quad. With at least 300 masked students in attendance, the event included food and games, a photo booth and a “silent disco” — where students borrow Bluetooth-powered headphones and listen to music and dance together without congregating too closely.

“Prom is one of the few events you can’t replicate in some other fashion. We adjusted this year,” Temecula Valley High Activities Director Eric Burlingham said. “You just can’t do prom through a Zoom meeting.”

Olivia Fredericks, an 18-year-old Temecula Valley senior and student body president, helped to make the centerpieces and decorations. She and senior classmates had wondered all year if they would have a prom, since the Class of 2020 didn’t get one.

“There’s been a lot of grey areas where we don’t know what’s allowed and what isn’t … so it’s bittersweet,” said Fredericks, who will attend UCLA. “But senior year prom is about making memories with the people you love, dressing up all pretty, and getting to see your friends on campus, since we’ve spent so many months not on campus.”

Temecula Valley High Principal Allen Williams said administrators agreed that another school year without a prom was “almost unacceptable.” Williams called the dance a “safe alternative” for the students to reunite safely.

“When you leave a vacuum with no prom, other (dances and events) might fill the vacuum that might not be as safe or well-supervised,” Williams said. “Having this event on campus reduces costs, and makes the prom more affordable for families that may have been hit hard by the pandemic.”

Private proms pop up

In districts that canceled proms, some parents and groups worried their kids would not get to safely experience the iconic school dance before graduation. So they got creative and hosted their own events.

In April, students at Santiago High School in Corona got dressed up for a parent-led black-and-teal-themed prom in Norco. In May, Norco High seniors had a cowboy-themed “senior showdown” dinner-dance at a golf course. A community church in Yucaipa hosted a Beyond the Stars prom night. And the Fox Theater in Pomona hosted a walk-through photo prom in May, inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s film “Romeo + Juliet.”

  • The Caigoy family is seen Saturday, May 22, 2021, at their Vaxx Prom 2021 at their San Dimas home. From left are: Butch, Ana, Geraldine, Joe, Isabelle, Angie and youngest daughter Lisa May Caigoy. “There’s so much value in every year in high school, and for me, it was hard to fathom (Lisa May) missing any year, let alone her big senior year,” said older sister Isabelle, who helped with the event. (Courtesy of Isabelle Caigoy)

  • Prom queen Lisa May Caigoy, 18, dances with her grandmother, Norma Caigoy, 83, at the family’s Vaxx Prom Night on Saturday, May 22, 2021, at their San Dimas home. “It’s very rare that grandma gets to go to a modern prom night,” said Geraldine Caigoy, Lisa May’s mother. (Courtesy of Angie Caigoy)

  • Family and friends are seen on the glow-in-the-dark dance floor at the Caigoy family’s Vaxx Prom 2021 on Saturday, May 22, 2021, in San Dimas. (Courtesy of Angie Caigoy)

  • Bonita High School senior Lisa May Caigoy with parents, Butch and Geraldine Caigoy, at her backyard prom in San Dimas on Saturday, May 22, 2021. Geraldine Caigoy said a “love for tradition” brought everything together, and she was proud of her kids for organizing the event. (Courtesy of Angie Caigoy)



One prom was even staged at home.

Lisa May Caigoy, an 18-year-old Bonita High School senior from San Dimas, had a “Vaxx Prom 2021” on Saturday night, May 22, attended by family and close friends.

The required “prom ticket?” A two-shot vaccination card.

Though Caigoy’s high school was to host an indoor prom Saturday, May 29, she didn’t feel comfortable going because of the crowd. Her older siblings, not wanting her to miss out, came up with the idea for a backyard prom. They took charge of the glow-in-the-dark decorations, balloons, finger foods and refreshments for fewer than 30 guests — including their grandmother.

Caigoy was happy to spend her first and last prom at home — fully vaccinated — with family. She wore the dress she had saved for her junior-year prom, which was canceled last year, and even bought herself a tiara.

“It was so fun to put on my gown and shiny heels, and all of us (siblings) got ready together with our hair and makeup, just to go downstairs and outside,” said Caigoy, who will be attending Mt. San Antonio College.

The intimate backyard prom, she said, was the perfect sentimental end to her high school chapter.

“I was declared the prom queen. I’m not used to being the center of attention, but all of the recognition was so nice … especially after the craziness of this past year, and everything to come.”

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