Hornets buzzed, Thoroughbreds raced, Panthers prowled and Crusaders marched through the streets of downtown Aiken on Sunday afternoon.

The City of Aiken and Project Graduation threw a parade for the class of 2020, and more than 500 came out to celebrate. Dressed in their graduation gowns, the students marched west on Park Avenue and turned north on Laurens Street to Barnwell Avenue while Queen's “We Are the Champions” and other music the students chose provided the soundtrack along the route

Along the way, more than 1,000 family members and friends, many holding signs congratulating their graduates, lined the streets in folding chairs, in the back of pickup trucks and on tailgates to cheer them on.

Many of the seniors had not seen each other since mid-March when schools closed and classes went online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I'm looking forward to the first time the whole class has seen each other and not only the seniors from South Aiken but all the seniors from Aiken,” said Jack McCarthy from South Aiken High, who will attend USC Aiken in the fall. “The class of 2020 – just being recognized and seeing some people that you may have not seen in a few months in the midst of this pandemic – it's just good being together and celebrating.

“Your friends, your teachers, people who are always there to help push you toward your goals and help you out, your principal, your coaches – it will be good to see them again.”

The parade celebrated seniors who live in the Aiken area from Aiken High School, the Hornets; South Aiken High School, the Thoroughbreds; Mead Hall Episcopal School, the Panthers; and South Aiken Baptist Christian School, the Crusaders. Aiken students who attend Aquinas High School in Augusta and are home-schooled also participated.

“It's just really sweet of the City of Aiken to notice us,” said Porter Ingram from Aiken High, who will attend Clemson University in the fall. “I feel like a parade is something where everyone can come together to recognize the graduates, give us a big thank you and celebrate with us.”

Emily Crenshaw of South Aiken High said the parade helped take the place of some of the end-of-school traditions seniors missed this year.

“I think it's really special because we haven't had prom or a traditional graduation,” said Crenshaw, who will play volleyball at USC Upstate in Spartanburg in the fall. “It's really special that the City of Aiken wanted to celebrate us and the accomplishments we've made over the last four years.”

Jake Hibbitts of Aiken High agreed.

“I think it's a great way to recognize all the seniors this year since everything that has happened,” said Hibbitts, who will attend the University of South Carolina in Columbia in the fall. “It's a great way to make the seniors feel special just because of everything being cut short, all sports being cut short. All the teachers and administrators who are doing this for all of the students, too, and the City of Aiken, it's just a great way to show how great the city is and how we can all come together to show support for the seniors this year.”

All nine of South Aiken Baptist Christian School's 2020 seniors, who graduated last Friday, participated in the parade.

“We're here; we're masked; we're holding our sign; and we're ready to walk the streets,” Principal Tonya Bryant said before the parade began. “For our students, it means an unusual situation became a little more normal and a little more celebratory. A lot of of the things we usually do we couldn't do, so, therefore, this is just one more event where we can celebrate our young people.”

The Senior Parade is a replacement for Project Graduation, an all-night graduation celebration for Aiken High and South Aiken High seniors and other graduating seniors in the Area 1 attendance zone. The event includes games, prizes and scholarship awards.

“I think this is a great replacement for this year,” South Aiken High Principal Sam Fuller said. “The students are still going to win prizes, and it gives them the opportunity to get together, while being socially distanced, before graduation. Honestly, I think we might keep doing this in the future because it's just excellent. It's amazing.”

Diana Floyd, who helps coordinate Project Graduation, said she started looking for a replacement activity when it looked like schools weren't going to be able to have graduation ceremonies.

“It is so neat to see all of these kids turn out. What a treat for these kids to do something fun,” she said. “We've tried to take every measure to be safe. We have gloves. Everybody has a mask. We have monitors trying to keep kids apart.”

Floyd said the the support of community businesses and individuals who donated prizes, including televisions, mini refrigerators and scholarships, has been “amazing.”

Students registered for prizes before the parade began and received a text if they won. All students received at least one gift card.

Betty Ryberg, who helped organize the parade, said she was impressed by the beautiful weather – sunny and warm with a light breeze and a few puffy clouds – but even more by the “beautiful students who have shown up.”

“Look at the lineup on Park Avenue and Laurens Street,” she said. “All of these students are ready to say thank you. Maybe our community is just the perfect size to recognize these students. A parade is what we need right now. The community needs a parade with signs and cowbells. So let's cheer.”

Aiken County Public Schools' high school seniors will graduate at 10 a.m. Friday during ceremonies, following social distancing guidelines, on their respective football fields. Midland Valley High School, North Augusta High School and Silver Bluff High School seniors will graduate Thursday. Aiken High School, South Aiken High School, Ridge Spring-Monetta High School and Wagener-Salley High School will graduate Friday.

​Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.