FCPS Uses Football Fields, Fire Pits and Parking Lots to Encourage Outdoor Gathering
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Football fields, parking lots and fire pits replaced the traditional Homecoming dance setting of school gymnasiums this fall, roughly 19 months after schools across the country were forced to shutter at the onset of the pandemic. In Fairfax County Public Schools, it had been two years since the last Homecoming celebrations were held. Now, with students and staff back in school buildings five days a week, the FCPS community was ready to party. No matter where the celebrations occurred.
Student government leaders and faculty at Justice High School in Falls Church opted to host their festivities on the football field, a nod to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that outdoor settings are generally deemed safer for activities during the pandemic. “The idea of being in the gym with 700 kids stuck together like glue on the dance floor was a little bit scary,” said Elizabeth Buffenbarger, Justice High’s student government and leadership advisor and French language teacher. “So we asked the athletic director, who is very protective of that football field, if it would be ok to use it for the event this year. He said yes, as long as there were no heels allowed.” Student leaders embraced the idea of being under the stars, and created an “Across the Universe” theme for the event, Buffenbarger said. Staff and students alike wanted to ensure a safe environment that allowed for celebration, while being mindful that the pandemic is still present. Those planning the event ensured hand sanitizing stations were located around the football field, and came up with other atypical event guidelines, such as encouraging students to dance in larger circles as groups, designed to keep students safe, she said.
Fay Khateeb, a Justice High senior and executive president of the school’s Student Government Association, said being able to hold Homecoming for the first time since seniors were sophomores is “another way to get people out of that virtual mindset.” “There wasn’t much we could do as far as decorations could go with a party on a football field, but we put up fairy lights everywhere to make it as magical as we could,” Khateeb said. “We wanted a normal, or at least semi-normal experience, and we made that happen. We are adapting to the circumstances we are in; it was a learning lesson for all of us.” At South Lakes High in Reston, the spirit week leading up to the Oct. 15th football game had the school “covered in blue and green,” according to Director of Student Activities Leah Conte. South Lakes community planned a parade before the game, and a dance split between indoor and outdoor activity options with a “festival like environment,” Conte said. Students had the option to be inside -- and in masks -- where they could watch a movie or dance to a DJ in the gym, or head outside for fire pits, corn hole and food trucks. “The vibe has been amazing,” Conte said. Meanwhile at James Madison High in Vienna, students turned to the school parking lot as the venue for their gathering, with a “Highway to Homecoming” theme and traffic-oriented decor.
Planning for Madison’s event started at the end of the last school year, when students decided early on to prepare for an outdoor event, Madison’s Assistant Director of Student Activities Andrew Baird said. “We committed early to the idea of doing this outside, we knew what we needed to do to make this event a success and booked tents and all the things we needed months ahead,” Baird said. The event sold out, just as it last had in 2019, with about 1,000 tickets being issued, he said, and the surrounding community eager to celebrate the town’s school as well. “The parade runs right down Maple Ave., the center of Vienna, and businesses came out to connect with the school,” Baird said. “Homecoming signifies the return of alumni, celebrating former graduates and all of that. This was an opportunity for all of us to return to a place we enjoy being, to reconnect with friends, colleagues and teachers and have a little bit of fun in a safe way amidst a very difficult time.”