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Schools plan for homecoming mindful of pandemic concerns

Homecoming court students Eli Wright and Kalin Wilson toss candy to the crowd during the Mars Area School District Homecoming Parade on Friday. Julia Maruca/Butler Eagle

This weekend, high schoolers at Mars Area School District will get dressed up and head to the annual homecoming dance. But unlike other years, they'll be dancing under the stars as this year's homecoming will be held outdoors.

“We wanted to have something special for these poor kids,” said student council adviser Meghan Boland. “It's been so hectic for them in terms of all this COVID stuff. If we could do a homecoming for them in some way, we wanted to do it.”

The Mars Homecoming dance on Oct. 2 will be held outside at the Mars Athletic Complex on the football field. Under current mask mandate rules, Boland said, the students will not need to wear masks since the gathering is outdoors.

“The kids are safe, they don't have to wear masks, and it's kind of win-win as long as the weather stays the way it should,” Boland said.

For many schools, this year's homecoming festivities marked the first since before 2020, as COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult to hold events like dances. Outdoor dances or events with masking indoors are some ways districts are making the longtime high school milestone possible again.

Traditional homecoming celebrations in high schools often include multiple components: the dance itself, the Friday night homecoming football game, voting on the homecoming court, the “Spirit Week,” parade and other school-spirit-related celebrations.Schools across Butler County have opted for a mixture of these pieces this year, with some going all-out on all components and others finding new ways to put on classic traditions.“(Last year), we didn't have an actual dance, and we didn't have a parade,” Boland said. “We had a Spirit Week, and we still did a homecoming court, so the kids could vote on a king and queen. But we just did what we could that was feasible and safe during COVID.”Creating an outdoor homecoming dance meant a few new considerations for Student Council leaders and teacher advisers planning the homecoming festivities at Mars.

Students met over the summer to choose a theme suited for both outdoors and indoors, and ended up with the theme “Let's GLOW Crazy.”“The student council tried to go out of their way to make it extra special,” Boland said. “They were excited about the glow theme, and we're going to have all sorts of different lighting structures and blacklights. The Student Council kids really wanted it to be something special for their classmates.”Even with the outdoor component, some portions remained as they were from previous years.“A lot of the other planning stuff was still kind of the same,” Boland said. “There were a couple of added things, like coming up with rain plans in terms of the weather turning out in our favor, but the overall process has been pretty similar.”Boland said so far, ticket sales have been going well, and students seem enthused about the opportunity to participate.“I think they are excited, especially some of the upperclassmen,” she said. “The past couple years, this is all they've really known as their high school experience is all of the COVID circumstances. To be able to have a dance and hang out with their friends, and for it to be done in a safe way, I think they're excited.”

Butler Area School District canceled its homecoming dance last year. The district still hung stadium signs for the homecoming football game and held Spirit Week theme days.This year, the district has returned to hold an indoor, masks-required dance on Oct. 9, with COVID-19 precautions in mind.“Planning for this year's homecoming dance is similar to years past, except that the building level administration and student council advisers had to discuss and plan for COVID-19 protocols and procedures,” said student council faculty adviser Jenni Gassert in an email.Gassert said students are looking forward to “a return to some sense of normalcy.”“Many of the students at the Senior High have not been able to experience the excitement and energy that homecoming brings to the building,” she wrote. “Student Council is very committed to planning events and activities that promote school spirit and school pride, and the members and advisers are very happy to be able to have that opportunity for homecoming this year.”

Slippery Rock Area School District took a different approach than some other districts. As Butler County transmission rates rose and as masking mandates were established in September, the student-led Homecoming Committee decided against holding a school-sponsored homecoming dance.“They've had several conversations about ... the parameters of what we're required to do inside of school buildings, and what that dance would look like with those parameters,” said Susan Miller, Slippery Rock assistant uperintendent.“The student response was that that was not conducive to what they felt was a good homecoming dance,” she said.The committee considered holding an outdoor dance out of concern that “putting several hundred students in the gym dancing for a long time is probably not the best for safety,” Miller said, but decided against it due to the possibility of bad weather.“I don't want to say it was one factor,” she said. “It wasn't just masks; it wasn't just indoor/outdoor. It was a multitude of different factors.”Slippery Rock Area School district had still planned to hold a homecoming football game this year on Sept. 24, but the game was canceled due to COVID-19 issues on the opponent's end. The school still held a Spirit Week in the lead-up to the game, but will be holding its actual rescheduled homecoming game on Oct. 8.“I would say our students are fantastic — they are great. They are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances,” said Miller. “But for many of them, it's their senior year, and these milestone activities are really important to them, and many of them over this past year have missed a lot of these memorable activities.”

Karns City Area School District was one school that still had a homecoming dance even in 2020, albeit with COVID-19 restrictions.The district will hold this year's homecoming dance on Oct. 9, and Student Council adviser TJ McFarland said the celebration is “back to normal” as compared to the previous year.“We didn't have snacks and places for kids to sit down next to each other last year,” said McFarland. “It was really supported last year that our school board wanted to have (homecoming). The administration and everybody tried to make it happen, even last year. This year, we started planning right away from the beginning of the school year.”The dance will be held indoors with a mask requirement, and will utilize the full gym instead of half of the gym, so that students can spread out, a precaution that began last year. Past homecoming dances at the district have drawn around 200 students.The student council is also going “above and beyond” for the school's Spirit Week activities, McFarland said.“Usually we have a theme for every day, but (this year) we have a theme and a student section scheduled for every home team event,” he said.The lineup includes team spirit events for cross country and girls' volleyball on Tuesday, men's and women's soccer on Thursday and football on Friday leading up to the dance on Oct. 9.“That's unprecedented for us. They're wanting to have a lot of fun next week.

Homecoming Court students Madison Moan and Jacob Caringola toss candy to the crowd during the Mars Area School District Homecoming Parade. Julia Maruca/Butler Eagle
The Mars Area Marching Band parades in downtown Mars for Homecoming. Julia Maruca / Butler Eagle
Homecoming Court students Eli Wright and Kalin Wilson toss candy to the crowd during the Mars Area School District Homecoming Parade.
The Mars Area Marching Band gets ready to line up for the Homecoming parade. Julia Maruca / Butler Eagle
Mars Area School District Dance members perform in the Homecoming parade. Julia Maruca/Butler Eagle
The Mars Area School District Class Council marches in the Homecoming parade. Julia Maruca/Butler Eagle
Mars Area School District Cheerleaders get their float ready for the Homecoming parade. Julia Maruca/Butler Eagle