PORT TOWNSEND — The text message came on a Friday afternoon one year ago.
Sitting in his U.S. history class at Port Townsend High School, Finn O’Donnell stepped into the hallway after reading the words.
Gov. Jay Inslee had just announced the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, closing schools across Washington state.
O’Donnell’s mother Kate Dean, who is also a Jefferson County commissioner, texted him the news on March 23, 2020.
The following Monday, O’Donnell went to school one last time to pick up remote learning materials.
Then the campus went quiet, with sports, dances, Homecoming and Spirit Week shut down.
“That was a sad, sad afternoon,” said the now 17-year-old, who, at the time, worked at the Rose Theatre, which also closed last March.
Today, O’Donnell is student body president. He works at the Bishop Hotel and keeps track of vaccine doses flowing into Jefferson County. He attends in-person school one day a week — “that’s been incredible,” he said — and is planning for a senior prom like no other.
Alongside a cadre of classmates, O’Donnell envisions a night of dressing to the nines, dancing, having keepsake photos taken, all on Port Townsend High School’s tennis courts.
Saturday, May 22, is the date.
The courts are ideal, said Stella Jorgensen, student body vice president.
The venue requires no pre-paid deposit, nor any payment for that matter.
It has a big, flat dance floor and fences that can be festooned with lights and decorations for the evening to start at “dusk-ish,” she added.
“We’re thinking about doing a masquerade theme,” said Jorgensen, who, like her friends, has integrated the cloth mask into her wardrobe for a while now.
All prom planning is possible thanks to a battery of precautions: rapid COVID-19 testing at school just before the event, vaccine availability for the teachers who serve as chaperones, and masking and social distancing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 3 feet of distance between students at school, O’Donnell noted, provided masking is universal.
Whether that can be enforced is debatable, but there’s no question about these seniors’ desire to do what they need to in order to go to prom.
“I just miss seeing everyone at school,” said senior class president Sorina Johnston, who added there used to be four dances per year.
“This year we didn’t attempt to plan any,” until this one.
Prom is typically held at a fancy place such as the Northwest Maritime Center, added senior class vice president Melanie Bakin.
But since students haven’t been on campus for much of the school year, the tennis courts feel special.
The seniors hope to make this year’s prom free for the 89 students in their class.
Normally tickets are about $20, Bakin added, but “we’re going to make it as inexpensive as possible, [since] we don’t have to pay for a venue.”
Carrie Ehrhardt, Port Townsend High School principal, is working with students on both the prom and the June 11 graduation ceremony. While seniors can invite other students from their school to the prom, no one outside Port Townsend High will be allowed in, Ehrhardt said.
She has conferred with Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke on rapid COVID tests to go with each student’s prom ticket.
As for graduation, Memorial Athletic Field is the venue. Again, rapid testing for seniors prior to the event — and, possibly by that time, vaccinations for teachers and many students — will be among the precautions.
A large stage will be erected, Ehrhardt said, so the graduates can walk across it; families can spread out in the stands.
“We’ll probably have a capacity of 400 to 500, so four or five tickets per graduate,” she added.
“I haven’t felt very optimistic about this whole pandemic,” O’Donnell said — until now.
“There’s a potential for a large portion of our population to be vaccinated” by graduation day.
He and some of his fellow seniors are getting their COVID shots this month, so they will have immunity by prom night.
“Getting the opportunity to see my friends and dance together,” he said, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]