Homecoming week at Hempstead High School in Dubuque came back with a bang this year.

Hundreds of people turned out for the movie night and powderpuff football game held earlier this week. A dodgeball tournament also proved wildly popular, as did a tailgate night at the school.

After missing out on homecoming in 2020, students were ready for its return, said Paige Kunkel, a Hempstead senior.

“I miss doing things with the entire school, all these events,” said Kunkel, who also is public relations chairwoman for Hempstead’s student government. “I’m pretty sure all of our students are happy, including me, to be back doing a lot of these things.”

Schools around the tri-state area are marking a return to more traditional homecoming festivities this year, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many of them to cancel or significantly alter their plans for homecoming in 2020.

Students and school leaders said high-schoolers generally are excited for the resumption of many homecoming activities, which help connect students with one another and with their schools.

“It has given classes and the students a chance to, for the first time in almost a year and a half, to feel like things are kind of normal,” said Darren Sirianni, principal of East Dubuque (Ill.) High School. “They’re not there yet, but we’re doing things that we did two years ago.”

Return to normal

On Friday afternoon, students in Hempstead’s band and color guard lined up at Jackson Park in Dubuque for the school homecoming parade.

The drumline began to play, and the students took off down Main Street, followed by their classmates in cheerleading, various sports and other student groups.

It was a stark difference from last year, when the school canceled homecoming activities amid the pandemic.

“Its been pretty great to see our kids enjoying each other’s company, having things to participate in,” Hempstead Principal Lee Kolker said. “That social aspect of their world has returned a little bit this week, so that’s always great to see for us.”

At Dubuque Senior High School, students are readying for their own homecoming the week of Oct. 4, with scheduled activities that include a trivia night, doughnut day, powderpuff game, assembly, parade and dance.

“There are going to be a lot of extra mitigations, like just ways for us to be a little bit more cautious, but more or less, we’re having a regular schedule,” said Erica Leavell, a student council adviser.

She said the normalcy that comes with the return of homecoming is a relief after a series of challenging school years.

“There’s something comforting about knowing we can do this, and we can do it safely and that the kids are going to have a great experience because of it,” Leavell said.

Lilie Patrum, a sophomore representative on the student council, will mark her first homecoming this year after last year’s festivities were canceled. She also is helping plan this year’s dance.

“I’m excited,” she said. “I’m nervous because we have a lot to do. It’s definitely crunch time, but I’m definitely excited.”

Building excitement

Other local schools also are returning to more normal homecoming activities this year, with some mitigation efforts in place.

After East Dubuque (Ill.) High School’s homecoming activities were canceled last year, students this week celebrated their homecoming with a parade, class competitions, dress-up days and other festivities.

Homecoming marked one of the first times schoolwide activities have returned since the start of the pandemic, Sirianni said. He noted that with many activities put on hold earlier in the pandemic, some students lost connections with their school. School leaders sought to make homecoming a part of rebuilding that.

“If we can get the classes working in unison and having a common goal, that’s a big thing,” Sirianni said.

Student council members at Lancaster (Wis.) High School made some tweaks to homecoming festivities scheduled for next week, such as moving the community pep rally outside, but they still are trying to make the week as close to normal as possible, said David Bridge, a student council adviser.

“I think they’re willing to bend a little bit on the traditions in order to have some of these activities,” Bridge said.

At Western Dubuque High School in Epworth, students and staff are returning to a more traditional homecoming schedule next week, with some small modifications. Events held inside during the school day only will be open to students, but outdoor activities and events held outside of the school day will be open to more people.

Principal Jacob Feldmann said the return to traditional festivities is creating a different energy in the building than last year, when organizers planned small-group activities and relied more on video conferencing.

“If our students are excited and our staff is excited … it’s a win-win for all of us, and when we see those things and that excitement come back from everybody, it’s uplifting and it’s exciting,” he said.

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