Chailyn Berrios, 17, is wearing an aqua blue prom dress and matching eye shadow. Several teary-eyed family members take her photo outside her home in Bridgeport. In a few minutes she’ll get out of her heels, put on her driving shoes, and drive herself to Quassy Amusement Park for prom.
Prom season is coming to an end for high schoolers across the state. That is, if they had a prom at all. Some schools chose limited-attendance proms or canceled them altogether due to pandemic concerns.
Some schools opted for an amusement park prom at Quassy, where students show up in formal wear, eat dinner, dance a little and then change into casual clothes and enjoy the rides.
Even minutes before she leaves, Berrios still thinks it’s a little weird “to have a prom at an amusement park, like what?”
But the Class of 2021 at Bullard-Havens Technical High School chose prom at the amusement park. Berrios, the class president, said her grade just “[needed] something, ’cause our junior prom ended up getting canceled ’cause of COVID. We’ve just like, we need something.”
The Class of 2021 has been through a lot: Most of senior year was essentially skipped. Students have been in online school for a year and a half, and Berrios says they miss their friends.
Her mom, Christina Garcia, looks at her daughter, her baby, she says, and her last child to go to prom. “She’s always a happy kid, but this is actually like the happiest she’s been all year,” Garcia said.
In Middlebury, limos pull into Quassy Amusement Park. Students arrive in tuxedos, and some cross the parking lot clutching the bottom of their prom dresses. The accessory of the night is a trash bag full of clothes for later.
Paulina Rodriguez and some friends are sitting on a bench near the entrance. They’re shaking off a little pre-prom nerves. The whole thing’s still a little weird. Rodriguez said her class was given a choice between a traditional prom venue and Quassy.
“And we chose Quassy because we’d get to be out in the open and everything instead of in a close space 6 feet apart,” Rodriguez said.
But Janiyah Jean-Rene isn’t sure the Quassy night is prom as it should be. “I mean, it’s fun. It’s just different,” Jean-Rene says. “Like you would not picture your siblings going like, “Yeah, my prom was at Lake Quassy,” she says to her friends.
Joshua Green plays devil’s advocate. “I mean, at least we can say that we got to go on a roller coaster at our prom, I’m just saying …”
“Yeah, last year’s class ain’t get no prom,” Jovan Fountain adds, “... or a graduation.”
At 7 o’clock, things are still warming up. Only the most daring are on the dance floor.
But half an hour later, the DJ interrupts himself to make an announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we’re gonna announce the king and the queen.”
Bullard-Havens Director of Counseling and Admissions Tracy Ganino organized the prom. She looks like she’s having just as much fun as the seniors when she grabs the microphone and shouts, “Class of 2021, your prom king is … Ashley Virgo!”
Virgo erupts with joy. She dances up to Ganino to accept the crown. But first she has to take off the one she wore to prom.
Connecticut Public got an exclusive interview with newly crowned Virgo. She got the idea first from a joke she posted on Snapchat.
The post had pull. “I wasn’t expecting to get nominated,” Virgo said. “When I see my name up there, I was like, ‘whoa, we gotta do this now.’ And I wanted to make history at Bullard, you know? I wanna be the first-ever female prom king!” Virgo said.
By 8 o’clock, rides start blinking to life and students start to shed the formal wear for shorts and T-shirts.
School counselor Amanda Chavez says she was a little uncertain at first. But once the night started rolling, it hit her. “Wow, this is kinda their first event out of quarantine where they’re seeing their whole class,” Chavez said. “So it actually worked out pretty well, it’s really back to normal.”
Chavez said she dealt with a lot of sadness in students over the past year. But after a year of masks and virtual school, students were holding hands in line for rides, eating ice cream, laughing and screaming in the fun kind of fear.
But Jean-Rene discovered a problem with going on a roller coaster during prom. After the ride stopped she said, laughing, “my hair was straight and now I feel like it’s a blowout.”
That didn’t stop her from getting back in line for another ride. “We’re seniors, we can still be kids,” Jean-Rene said, rounding the corner from the exit right back to the entrance.
She and all the other seniors -- kids, as she called them -- couldn’t be bothered for long, because they have a lot of fun to catch up on.
Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Ali covers the Naugatuck River Valley for Connecticut Public Radio. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @ahleeoh.