Officials at the Exeter school district will conduct an internal audit of its senior prom policy in which attendees who had not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 were marked with a black Sharpie for contact tracing purposes.

A firestorm kicked up after 11th District GOP Rep. Melissa Litchfield posted what she told Seacoast Current was a "fact find mission" on her Facebook page after hearing from parents upset about what had happened at the prom. It was held on June 4 under a tent in front of Exeter High School.

"There were parents who messaged me the next morning upset and concerned. I was not able to obtain information myself directly from the superintendent," Litchfield said. "I was told to have parents go directly to the administrators so they could explain the protocols that had been put in place that night. My Facebook post was simply a fact-finding mission."

In a statement, district officials said things moved very quickly from a prom not being considered feasible to becoming a reality under a tent with the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine for teens and a significant drop in cases.

"Our goal was to let them dance, while taking appropriate safety precautions for the more than 300 attendees. To date, the student feedback has been extremely positive," district officials said in a statement.

District officials said the reality was that not all students would be fully vaccinated, so a contact tracing system was put into place. Students were told a system would be in place as they registered at a prom website and were asked for vaccination information, according to the district.

The prom website does not mention the specifics of the contact tracing policy on the main page. Under the FAQ section of the website, students were "strongly encouraged" to share their vaccination card with the school health office before the prom "to help with any contact tracing."

Once students arrived they were greeted with the Sharpies.

According to the officials at the high school, students without a vaccination card and those who had not shared their information prior to prom had a number written on their hands.

Dancing was divided among three dance floors. After every few songs, the students were asked to raise their hands to determine who they were around.

Underclassmen were tasked with tracking the numbers, Litchfield said she was told by parents.

District officials said the numbers did not personally identify a student and only a single set of cards exists. They are in the possession of the class advisor.

"Those cards will be destroyed in the next few days. As a result, there will be no unique identifiers that can be tied back to students who were unable to show proof of vaccination," district officials said in its statement.

"No contract tracing system is perfect for crowds this large and not all students could be traced in a prom environment. However, without a contact tracing system, all attendees would have had to be quarantined if there was a positive case tied back to the event," district officials said.

As of Friday, no positive COVID-19 cases had been associated with the prom.

Black marks on non-vaccinated students at Exeter High School prom (Rep. Melissa Litchfield)

"What parents are telling me is that they did not have knowledge of this ahead of time. I don't think any parent realized that if their child wasn't vaccinated that they would be marked up at the prom. That they would be branded for all to see," Litchfield said.

Parents told Litchfield their kids used hand sanitizer to rub the ink off their hands once they got inside the prom. Others began to cry at the prospect of not being able to get inside because they did not bring their vaccination card.

"You tell me. Is that not creating two different classes? If you're vaxxed, and you show your papers you're good. But if you're not vaxxed we're going to brand you with black Sharpie for the night with a number. Is that appropriate? Do we want to set precedence for that?" Litchfield asked.

Litchfield said many of the parents she spoke to believe the COVID-19 vaccine is experimental and optional and the district pushed students to take the shot in a carrot-and-stick approach.

"They're saying the children were under the impression they would have extra privileges if they were vaccinated. Maybe they could get closer to other students or the fact that the prom was so close to that graduation that it was put out there to the kids that 'look if you haven't been vaccinated and we're doing our contact tracing and there's a big positive COVID case you'll have to quarantine and you can't go to your own graduation,'" Litchfield said.

The COVID-19 vaccines are considered "safe and effective" by the CDC and authorized for emergency use by the FDA but are not required for anyone to receive. Only the Pfizer vaccine is approved for use in children age 12 and older.

In a second statement from district officials, they said they want to focus on Saturday's graduation.

"Right now, our focus needs to be on graduation and ensuring that our seniors have a positive experience as they close their chapter on high school after an extremely challenging 16 months in a pandemic," district officials said.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNH

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