Esko seniors in 2020 saw a drastic change in their final moments of high school, with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to canceled proms and diplomas received through car windows.

This year, Esko Public Schools officials are hoping to return to a more traditional format for year-end events, while also keeping everyone safe.

Superintendent Aaron Fischer said Monday, March 22, he is proud of how the school community banded together and made a memorable experience for the seniors last year, but he is hoping this year's seniors are able to experience all of the usual events, with some adjustments made due to the pandemic.

Because of COVID-19 guidelines, planning committees have been trying to find new ways to host prom, graduation and the all-night graduation party.

Plans for graduation and prom are still being finalized, with outdoor venues being a central topic of discussion.

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Prom is likely to take place outdoors with an alternative social event replacing dancing, according to high school Principal Greg Hexum.

Hexum and Fischer said graduation plans are still in the air, with a couple options being considered.

There is one year-end event, however, that seems to have found a definite venue and timeline: Esko's All-Night Grad Party.

The All-Night Grad Party is a long-standing tradition for Esko seniors, and serves as a way to both keep them safe and give them one final night as high school classmates.

Typically, it is held at the school, but with COVID-19 guidelines, the planning committee decided to go a different direction for 2021.

The All-Night Grad Party committee presented the School Board with the alternative venue: the Buffalo Valley campsite, near the Buffalo House restaurant in Duluth.

"Being inside is always the challenge," Fischer said. "I think there's more than one way to do things."

Committee chairperson Joy Amireault said this venue would allow the event to take place outdoors, with electricity for vendors and tents provided in case of bad weather.

She proposed hosting the event from the time the graduation ceremony ends until about midnight, instead of overnight.

This led to board members voicing some concerns because the venue would be near the Buffalo House, which serves alcohol on-site, and that the students would be driving home late at night.

Fischer agreed that there could be perception issues in the community, but said the school's strong partnership with the venue owner and the extensive time spent managing the event made him comfortable supporting the plan.

He explained that Buffalo Valley is separate from the Buffalo House space and is located on the fields below the establishment. He also said there will be close supervision and barriers around the space.

Hexum clarified that state ordinances require at least one on-duty police officer to be present at the event, and that many parent volunteers are also involved in law enforcement.

Board Chair Jeff Salo said his main concern is transportation for the students and where they would go after the event.

According to Hexum, students would be bused to and from the venue, but would then be responsible for getting from the school to their homes.

Other board members noted that the school can't control every aspect of the night, and no matter what, the students are going to have to leave the event at some point.

"We have to give some responsibility to the parents as well," board member Jerry Frederick said. "Hopefully, they'll have that conversation with their student about what's appropriate and what isn't."

Board member Maggie Sunnarborg said that while she was initially against the plan, she has now come to recognize how much time and effort has gone into the planning.

"Anything can happen at anytime, no matter what," she said.

In the end, the board unanimously agreed to support the Buffalo Valley plan for one year only, so long as an on-duty officer is present at the event and students were bused to and from the venue. They also plan to communicate with families that students should arrange a safe ride home prior to the party.