Two hours before prom was supposed to start, Carla Garcia was still getting ready. One family member helped with makeup and another was responsible for curling the high school senior’s hair.

As the time of the event neared, Carla put on her coral two-piece, floor-length dress with a bejeweled sleeveless top and a white sash identifying her as Prom Queen. Finally ready, she walked to where the big event would be held: on a laptop in the Garcia family’s backyard.

With strict social distancing rules in place and campuses closed, prom – like most other hallmark high school events – has fallen by the wayside, a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.

School leaders everywhere were left scrambling to maintain some sense of normalcy for students. At Advanced Learning Academy in the San Antonio Independent School District, where Carla is a member of a 14-person senior class, teachers made a list of all the events that would have to be altered or eliminated.

They decided they would hold a graduation parade with teachers and administrators driving to each senior’s house, deliver gift baskets to make their final months special, and plan an online senior awards ceremony.

“We talked about how important it was to have as much of a normal experience as possible given the conditions we’re under,” said Tiffany Jenkins, ALA’s program coordinator.

Prom presented a bigger challenge. A typical prom night consists of groups of students dressing up, dining together, dancing in close quarters, and other activities that wouldn’t necessarily comply with social distancing standards. Many San Antonio schools have simply canceled the events.

At ALA, teachers worried that a virtual prom “could be awkward and kind of weird if we don’t do this right, but it ended up being really, really cute, and they [students] had a lot of fun,” Jenkins said.

Carla and her family decided to do whatever they could to make the night feel special.

For Carla, that meant inviting a date. Carla’s mom, Claudia Garcia, suggested her daughter take her cousin, Jude Silva, whose school wasn’t hosting a prom. Carla quickly agreed and began planning a “promposal” to invite Jude.

She made a poster that read: “Let’s beat this COVID pandemic by being photogenic at Prom 2020.” Jude accepted.

Photographer Andrew Alvarez takes photographs of cousins Jude Silva and Carla Garcia the day after Garcia’s virtual prom. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Carla feels fortunate that she attended a prom as a sophomore year; she skipped her junior prom for her brother’s graduation party.

“At the time I thought, ‘I’ll just go next year so it’ll be fine,’ but now I don’t have that same opportunity, and it’s definitely sad,” Carla said.

Carla is not alone in her disappointment that treasured events marking the end of a student’s time in high school have disappeared. High school seniors are experiencing a chapter in their lives cut short, which is why so many educators and families have tried to make up for the loss with new experiences.

And that’s why on prom night, Carla and Jude’s family decorated the backyard with bouquets of flowers and balloons that matched their outfits.

Members of Carla’s immediate family gathered to welcome her and fawn over her dress. Her immediate family is big – 76 members – and many wanted to come celebrate in person.

As her family milled around, Carla ate fettucine alfredo, breadsticks, and salad from Olive Garden and logged onto the Zoom videoconferencing app to see about 40 of her classmates.

At the beginning of the night, all the attendees showed off their outfits, some uniquely themed for the situation they were living through. One student dressed for the theme “Coronavirus to Couture” and another dressed as “Quarantine Chic,” Jenkins said.

“There was so many people on there it was really hard to hear who was talking,” Carla said, describing the frenzy. “There was so much going on.”

Advanced Learning Academy senior Carla Garcia talks to her friends via Zoom while celebrating prom in her backyard. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

One of the school’s art teachers DJ’d the event, playing songs for the moment in time. Todrick Hall’s Mask, Glove, Soap, Scrubs started and ended the playlist and songs from Dua Lipa, The Weeknd, and Rosalía filled the rest of the time.

Another teacher taught students how to dance the cumbia, and the group danced in unison. A student who loves to perform magic tricks put on a show for his classmates, involving his little sister in a disappearing act.

The entire event lasted about 90 minutes, Carla said.

The day after, Carla once again put on her special dress and went with Jude to Confluence Park to have pictures taken with a photographer offering free portraits to high school seniors.

First, Carla posed individually and then together with Jude. After the photographer asked the two to hold hands in a more romantic pose, Carla threw up a peace sign and Jude stuck his tongue out, reminding everyone they were cousins.

Toward the end of the photo session, Carla and Jude took turns putting on custom masks, made in a blue that matched ALA’s school colors. Across the front, the message “Seniors 2020 Quarantined” was printed.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.