The end of the school year was tough for Aiken County's graduating high school seniors.
When the governor closed schools on March 16 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, classes went from in person to online. Sports seasons ended before they barely had begun. Public and private schools canceled proms. And parades popped up across the county as the only way for students and teachers to stay in touch except virtually.
That ended Thursday and Friday for the seniors at Aiken County Public School's seven high schools.
Following input from the public that preferred in-person ceremonies, the school leaders planned commencement exercises to celebrates the district's more than 1,500 graduates while practicing social distancing to ensure the safety of graduates and their families.
Moving the graduations from the USC Aiken Convocation Center to to each high school's football field not only allowed for traditional commencement ceremonies to continue, but having the events on the school's home turf where four years of memories were made made them even more meaningful.
And what could be new graduation traditions began if at-school graduations continue next year. Blaring car horns from the overflow crowd in the parking lot at Midland Valley High's L.L. Willis Stadium sounded after the school's last graduate walked across the stage, and at Aiken High, video scenes on the Jumbotron of students walking across the stage to receive their diplomas made graduation literally larger than life.
But while in-person graduations made the end of school a little more normal, the graduates, no matter how they received their diplomas, were the stars of commencement.
Despite disappointments and missing out on the little perks that make the end of senior year special, Aiken County's seniors persevered. They completed their classes, earned scholarships and made plans to enter the workforce, go to college or join the military at a time when, as coronavirus cases continue to rise, the future still looks uncertain.
And their spirit is a cure for that uncertainty.
As Mary Swygert, Midland Valley High's salutatorian, told her classmates Thursday, “COVID 19 may have thrown the whole world into chaos and taken our senior prom and our traditions, but guess what: it has not taken our spirit. It has not taken our determination and our dream. COVID 19 has only strengthened them.
“Even though we are 6 feet apart right now, I feel like we're all together. Each person here has a dream. Make your dream a reality. I know you can do whatever you dream.”
Congratulations to public and private school leaders for making their students' dreams of traditional graduations a reality.
And congratulations to Aiken County's newest public, private and home-schooled high school graduates in the class of 2020 – a class of their own, with dreams of their own – that no one ever will forget.