Families adapt open houses to safely celebrate high school seniors

June 25, 2020

With a June 7 open house, twins Broc and Maryn Schaefbauer typically would have been among the later graduation celebrations.

But for the class of 2020, nothing has been ordinary.

So when the Bishop O’Gorman Catholic High School grads welcomed family and friends a couple of weeks ago, mom Ann said they were one of the first families she knew to host such a gathering this year.

About 150 people came and went throughout the two-hour party on the family’s front lawn. The Schaefbauers set up photos in the garage and four bar tables on the lawn, feeding guests with Eileen’s Colossal Cookies and Cold Stone Creamery ice cream. Both treat options were prepackaged so people could grab them quickly and limit exposure.

Although it was an uncomfortably hot, windy day, Ann Schaefbauer said the first thing she noticed when she walked inside after cleaning up was her kids beaming from ear to ear. 

“Not only is it that threshold they’re crossing, but they had been so long quarantined with their parents,” Schaefbauer said. “Usually, they would never see their parents during senior year with all the activities they do. The social aspect of what they lost is enormous.”

The class of 2020, though, is showing resiliency even in its celebrations.

A post to a Facebook group for families of new graduates asking about open house plans quickly drew dozens of examples.

There was the family who hosted a doughnut parade and encouraged guests to hand the graduate a balloon.

Others are postponing the parties until August and using them as a send-off for college.

“We did ours May 9,” mom Shannon Walls said. “Everything went great, we had our tables spread way out, lots of sanitizer on every table, one person with gloves serving the food, no hugging, lots of family and friends came, and it went great.”

In addition to classic party fare, one family offered sack lunches to go for those who didn’t feel comfortable staying.

Another family is holding a rescheduled open house this weekend, the same as graduation. Wendy Dooley said son Ethan’s open house will be Saturday and will be brunch-themed, following Ethan’s love of breakfast.

Dooley had her last breast cancer treatment at the end of 2019, and she was looking optimistically toward 2020. Life, obviously, has not gone as planned, forcing her family and countless others to adapt their open houses and many other aspects of their lives.

“I think one of the many things COVID has taught us is that you just have to be flexible and nimble and realize how little control any of us really have of a variety of things,” Dooley said. 

Initially expecting to be unable to hold Ethan’s open house, the Dooleys slowly started having conversations on how they feasibly could do it. Now, they will have the party in their backyard, using single-serving containers for Flyboy Donuts and Casey’s breakfast pizzas.

Others are holding open houses over the next few weeks. Angela Bakewell is planning an open house for her daughter, Maraya Osterman, in mid-July. Osterman, who has a lung condition, graduated early from Roosevelt High School in January. Her mom is grateful that she wasn’t still in school once the pandemic hit and is planning the open house with extra precautions to keep her daughter safe. 

Osterman’s upcoming open house will be entirely outside in her grandparent’s driveway and garage. Bakewell rented a snow cone truck and is prepackaging popcorn herself. Guests will be encouraged to quickly say hello and grab their food before leaving to prevent large gatherings of people.

Bakewell said her daughter and other Sioux Falls seniors have received tremendous support from the community. Through different “Adopt-a-Senior” Facebook pages and programs, many seniors are being recognized for their achievements from strangers, getting just a little bit of that sense of accomplishment that was taken away from them. 

“I just think that Sioux Falls has done such a fantastic job of supporting our seniors,” Bakewell said. “I don’t think that we could ask for a better community. I think unity is really the biggest thing and just knowing that we’re proud of them and we’re so sorry that it happened this way and doing everything we can to make it special for them.”

While many families have rescheduled their open houses, fewer than usual seem to be placing large orders from caterers, instead prepping much of the food themselves.

Johnny Carino’s, a usually busy open house caterer, has so far worked no open houses this season.

Area manager Darren Newborg said, however, that the restaurant will be catering a few celebrations over the next couple of weeks with a few changes to its usual routine.

Under normal circumstances, Carino’s catering setup typically allowed for guests to help themselves. Now, Newborg said an employee will be in charge of each serving station to make sure people aren’t touching the same surfaces. Other provisions will be up to guests to decide, such as how they want to distance stations.

Hy-Vee also has been following state and federal guidelines as well its own internal stringent rules with its floral, cake and food catering for open houses.

In past years, May and June have been big months for open houses, said Dale Mitchell, store manager for the Hy-Vee at Cliff and 57th. With many graduates pushing parties back, orders are just starting to ramp up for the remainder of summer.

Mitchell said Hy-Vee locations provide contactless pickup or delivery. Buffets are a thing of the past, as all products come prepackaged by employees wearing masks and gloves. 

Employees can help serve food at the events but follow physical distancing protocols and prepare food away from guests. Mitchell said the store can work with any specific requests customers have.

With the last few months of senior years taken away from these students, their parents know that open houses are even more meaningful than usual to recapture a sense of normalcy.

“Everything got taken away from them, no prom, no dances, no senior skip day,” Bakewell said. “Obviously, they know that we’re proud as parents and family and friends and the community, but I just think that their morale is down. So just giving them a little extra love, just like you would do with a kid that falls down, you know, just let them know that we love them and know we’re all going through it.”

Despite the unusual circumstances, these families are thankful for the opportunity to celebrate their children — even though it has come later than expected.

“We’re living in different times, and we’ve been slowly but surely … opening ourselves up because we can’t live in isolation for the rest of the time until the vaccination for COVID comes about,” Dooley said. “So we’re just navigating that and making it our best. And I think it’s important to these kids to see that even under adversity we can pivot and think differently about things. And I think they’re going to be really prepared for what life can throw them … and be great leaders and humans in the world.”

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Families adapt open houses to safely celebrate high school seniors

The class of 2020 is showing creativity in how they mark their milestone. We checked in on how they’re approaching open houses and found lots of great ideas.

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