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story.lead_photo.caption Agoura High School senior Jaden Wishengrad, 18, 2nd from right, congratulates Yasper De Jong, 18, right, after he was announced as prom king during the Agoura High School Senior Prom held at Moorpark Country Club in Moorpark, CA on Friday, May 21, 2021. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

LOS ANGELES — It's spring 2021. It's Friday at dusk. Gaggles of curious teenagers are gathering for an unfamiliar event designed to salvage a high school year that hardly was and pump an unaccustomed feeling into their final weeks as juniors and seniors — joy.

Call it prom-ish.

In the early weekends of California's phased reopening, teenagers, school leaders and perhaps most of all, parents, have seized on a sliver of an opportunity to try to make up for 14 months of missed dances, homecomings, sports award ceremonies and winter formals by mobilizing 11th-hour proms like none before them.

Depending on the school, parking lots replaced fancy indoor venues. Promposals, the highly orchestrated ask for a date, were tame. The DJ's music blast tended to waft into oblivion outdoors, which seemed OK because attempts at socially distanced dancing was a bit awkward. Attendees snacked on cotton candy and meatballs on skewers rather than partake in sit-down dinners. And the milestone event — typically subject to a year of planning and committee meetings — came together in a flash, a live curtain call to grateful students after nearly three semesters of COVID-19 isolation.

"This dress was last minute. The nails was last minute. But we make it work," said Malayah Wells, a Lynwood High senior, resplendent in a Nigerian print dress with a train. "We're all still here, we're all still alive. Even if you don't know each other, make it work. It's prom!"

Like others, Lynwood senior Arlene Arroyo attended with a group of friends, "finally — after not seeing them for a year," she said, wearing a blue gown her uncle made for her. "After this tough year, it's nice to have some light."

The momentum to cobble together a prom began to percolate as COVID-19 case rates steadily declined in Los Angeles County and vaccines became widely available. School officials and parents clung to a bit of hope and began planning the shell of an event.

Some districts, such as Arcadia Unified, Culver City Unified and Lynwood Unified, moved quickly to organize nontraditional proms.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, however, issued a big no early on.

"Based on Los Angeles County Public Health guidance, Los Angeles Unified is not allowing schools to hold large unstructured activities, such as traditional proms, where social distancing cannot take place. However, schools may decide individually to hold an event like a drive-thru prom in which participants wear masks, practice social-distancing and adhere to all safety protocols," Shannon Haber, a spokesperson for the district, said in a statement.

Taft Charter High School gave it a try, holding a drive-thru prom earlier this month.

Jadyn Simantob, a senior at Taft, said she and friends drove over to the event, which offered cotton candy, music and a brief opportunity to see classmates.

"Before the pandemic you would never imagine a prom in your school's student parking lot," Jadyn said. "I feel like that's actually a joke that we made."

Still, Jadyn said she appreciated her school's effort.

Other school officials set up strict guidelines: Masks were required, tables and seating was spaced out, and forget about the cheek-to-cheek embrace of a slow dance. All dancing had to be done at least 6 feet apart. To enter, students needed to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, often within 72 hours of the event.

Lynwood students were "very vocal" about having an in-person prom, said Jahmal Corner, spokesperson for the district. In a matter of weeks, Lynwood High students and staff stepped up to call vendors and dusted off props and decorations from the 2020 prom that never happened.

Although Lynwood reopened campuses for in-person instruction support for some students, last Friday was the first time in more than a year the Class of 2021 gathered — albeit on the school futsal court. About 140 students attended, Principal Ana Gonzalez said.

For some, it was the first time they met in person.

Jala'Tay Pleasant and Malayah had only previously spoken through email and texts. They met online in economics class at the beginning of the year, when Jala'Tay reached out to Malayah for help.

When the two met face-to-face, they became instant friends. While Lynwood did not have a designated dance floor, the two danced in their corner of the outdoor court, string lights hanging overheard. Nearby, a group of students claimed a set of white low benches where they played rounds of Uno.

The two admitted they almost didn't show up but were glad they did. Malayah's date, a friend who attends a different school, wasn't able to get in, but they took photos earlier in the day, she said.

The Las Virgenes Unified School District kicked off prom season with Agoura High School seniors at the Moorpark Country Club, where students took photos at a booth and participated in a group hypnosis session.

In San Marino, a group of parents rallied to put on a private prom for the senior class after the school district decided it would not host one.

Elizabeth Saldebar, whose youngest daughter is a senior at San Marino High School, said the event came together in about two weeks, and students were required to have proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. They expected 100 students, she said, and 140 showed up, hosted in another family's backyard.

"As a mom, who works literally every night it just made it all worth it to see my daughter walk in with all her friends just beaming from ear to ear," Saldebar said.

At Arcadia High School, the sweet smell of churros and cotton candy filled the air on a Saturday evening.

Instead of a drive-in movie night — which sold less than 100 tickets — the school pivoted last minute to an in-person prom in the campus courtyard, allowing up to 400 seniors and their guests to attend. The event, themed "garden of lights," sold out, even in its muted version.

"The students have been through a lot, so we're happy to do this for them," activities director Ryan Press said.

A line wrapped around the courtyard as students sat with dates and friends for a caricature portrait. On a white board, students left behind messages: "Stay safe," one student wrote with a smiley face. "Make the most in life! Have fun!" another wrote.

Seniors Nicole Kunzel and Ariadne Broqueza sat together, taking in the scene.

Ariadne, 17, said she was anxious about attending prom and being around so many people after so much time apart. But as she took in the setting, with Harry Styles' "Sign of the Times" playing in the background, she felt more at ease.

"Being here, I'm happy about it," she said. "I've been dreaming of this day for a while, since I was in elementary school and I heard about prom. And honestly, I'm pretty happy with what we have now considering everything that's been going on."

"I'm definitely grateful," Nicole added.

A disco ball looming overhead, one boy bravely kicked off a night of dancing and soon was joined by others attempting to stay six feet apart.

Ariadne declared the night a "memorable experience."

For Culver City High School students, the PTA, community members and businesses are chipping in to put on the prom in a few weeks, with Sorrento Italian Market and a local Chick-fil-A donating food.

"We were telling people we weren't going to have a prom," said Triston Ezidore, the school's class president. "It kind of all came at the last minute."

The school's initial prom-ish event in June would have allowed students to come to campus, "walk the red carpet" for photos and then head home. But with approval from the district, which covered costs to keep it free, it evolved into a full-blown on prom on campus.

For Triston, a senior, the experience will be meaningful as last year's prom was canceled. While formal wear isn't required, he already has an outfit planned: a dark blue velvet jacket, black dress pants and a black KN95 mask.

"I wouldn't ever want to look back and regret something," Triston said.

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