After a wild ride of a year, Forest Lake high school takes prom to the park

Pandemic restrictions are forcing some high schools to make alternate end-of-year celebrations.

Students on an amusement park ride.
Students ride the Backyardigans Swing-Along during Forest Lake Area High School's prom night at Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America Saturday in Bloomington, Minn.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Seventeen-year-old Bella Vierra wasn’t going to let a roller coaster ride stop her from wearing a floor-length prom dress this weekend.

“I’m so excited to be here because I bought this dress last year, thinking I was going to last year with him and then it was canceled, so I’m so happy I’m actually able to come and do prom,” Vierra said. 

Vierra’s date, Adam Witzel, 18, wore a tux, bow tie and matching mask.

“This is my senior prom,” Witzel said. “After the past year or two-ish of not being able to go out and do anything, this is one of the first things I’ve actually been able to do and see friends and dress up.” 

Forest Lake Area High School rented out Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America for two hours on Saturday and sent out invitations for junior and senior students to come dressed in formalwear and masks for a “mask-erede”-themed prom night. 

“We started struggling as every other school did with COVID and how can we provide something for our students,” said principal Jim Caldwell.

Two students on an amusement park ride.
Zoe Hawthorne and Kiarra Smith ride the Brain Surge during Forest Lake Area High School's prom night at Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America Saturday.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Forest Lake, along with other Minnesota schools, were faced with the challenge of running a prom while following a long list of COVID-19 restrictions from the Minnesota departments of health and education that included limitations on capacity and distancing requirements. 

Some schools chose to hold prom events outdoors. In other cases, including at Forest Lake, parents took on prom planning. They scouted out a venue in Wisconsin where there are different public health requirements. That means the kids at Forest Lake got two proms. 

“These seniors have not had a normal school year now in a year and a half. They missed out on last year’s prom. They almost missed out on this year’s prom,” Caldwell said. “We were always planning, right up to the line that MDE and MDH would let us do — all of our plans were right on that line.” 

And at the mall prom, planning right up to the line meant letting kids ride in bumper cars, the Nickelodeon Slime Streak and the SpongeBob Squarepants Rock Bottom Plunge. 

About a quarter of Forest Lake’s high school student population bought tickets, filling the park with about 450 kids, plus chaperones. 

“We are super excited about that,” Caldwell said. “We love hanging out with our students. We have not had an opportunity to hang out with this group of kids very much. No homecoming dance, no prom last year. Those areas where kids come together to have fun — we just haven’t had that opportunity. These kids have been through a lot, and the more we can get back to normal for our students, the better.”

For Ella Samantha Blaido, this past year has not been what she expected.

“Honestly, I’m having a hard time,” Blaido said. “For the beginning of the year it was online and there were a lot of distractions … but when I knew it would be here, I mean it’s kind of fun because we can go and take rides.” 

Some kids switched out their formalwear for T-shirts and shorts halfway through the night, but Bella Vierra said the key to going on rides while wearing a floor-length dress is just being able to fasten the safety harness. 

“As long as you know how to hike it up, it’s perfect,” Vierra said.

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