Now showing on a giant video screen at Aiken High's Hagood Stadium: the class of 2020.
With graduation scaled down and other traditional events for seniors, such as proms, awards day and picnics, canceled, online or on hold because of COVID-19, the school is using its Jumbotron in the south end zone to recognize this year's 329 graduating seniors. The screen features rotating larger-than-life images of the two students who would have been paired to march together into USC Aiken's Convocation Center for commencement in June.
“This is step one of a multistep process that we're doing to celebrate seniors,” Aiken High Principal Dr. Jason Holt said. “We feel like our seniors have been put in a bad situation.”
The video tribute features photos from this year's Aiken High School yearbook and snapshots of different activities from throughout the year.
“Twenty-four hours a day, it's rolling. That way parents and students can drive by and see just one layer of a tribute that we have planned,” Holt said.
Aiken High School
Rachel Larson, Aiken High's senior class president, said she's “definitely upset” that she and her classmates won't experience what seniors in past years have but is also “thankful” Aiken High is “doing everything possible to make everything better” – especially not completely canceling prom.
“We could possibly have it in July,” she said. “Other school canceled their proms – and I get that – but I'm really thankful Aiken High hasn't and is trying to hold out hope. That's good especially for the girls because we've spent a lot on dresses. I already had my dress, and it was not cheap.”
Larson said she is especially upset about not being able to finish her senior year on Aiken High's women's soccer team.
“It's so weird. You start senior year, and the first half of it is really, really hard. But then they tell you that once you get to March and April, it's amazing,” she said. “I play soccer for Aiken High. We were really good this year, and I was really excited to be able to play with my friends one last time before I go off to college. That was really upsetting. It's just seems like these last three month are a loss for seniors – it was kind of just gone.”
Larson will play soccer for Southern Wesleyan University in Central, South Carolina, next year.
“I hope I'll be able to play in the fall. We'll see,” she said. “I'm supposed to move in in early August. That's as far as I know right now.”
Jake Hibbitts, a senior at Aiken High, called the end of this school year “depressing” and “a really weird time,” but he added, “You've got to make the best of it.”
“In my opinion, all of the seniors are really excited about the graduation that we're having,” he said. “We've kind of lost everything, but we're happy that we can get that.”
A baseball player, Hibbitts said he was especially upset by the season's cancellation.
“This is my last season, and not being able to play is very upsetting,” he said. “We played maybe six games, and that's it. We had a really good team this year, and it's pretty sad that we won't be able to finish it out.”
One highlight of the shortened season was beating cross-town rival South Aiken High 3-2 on March 13, just three days before schools closed on March 16.
Hibbitts, who will attend the University of South Carolina in Columbia in the fall, said he will miss Aiken High “a lot.”
“It's probably the best four years I've had,” he said. “I've made a lot of great relationships with everybody from the staff to the teachers. I always know I have somebody to rely on. I couldn't ask for anything different.”
Aiken High senior Darin Parker, who signed Friday to play basketball at Newberry College, said the recruiting process was stressful at times. He, as other student-athletes did, missed out on visiting some schools that could have potentially offered him a scholarship.
Aiken High's graduation ceremony will be at 10 a.m. June 5 at the football field.
South Aiken Baptist Christian School
South Aiken Baptist Christian School had planned a drive-by graduation for its nine graduates but now will hold its commencement ceremony at 7 p.m. May 22 in the gymnasium, limiting the number of people who can be in the building to 100 and following social distancing guidelines.
“I'm disappointed because it's not going to be as big as usual, but at the same time, it's great that the school is doing all it can to make sure that we get as close to a traditional graduation as possible,” said Collin Winkler, who plans to attend Aiken Technical College in the fall and later transfer to Lander University, where he hopes to play soccer. “I think it's pretty cool.”
Olivia Versch, who will attend Texas Tech University in Lubbock in the fall and pursue a degree in social work, agreed.
“It's kind of disappointing that our graduation has to be smaller. My grandparents live in Myrtle Beach, so they can't come. But other that than, everything is almost the same, so it's not that bad,” she sad.
South Aiken Baptist's Ethan Kaufelds, a track and cross country runner, missed out on spring track season in addition to many of the various senior year traditions.
One he didn't miss out on, however, was a signing ceremony. He signed Tuesday to run at North Greenville, and South Aiken Baptist opened its gym for his ceremony – with chairs close together for family members and spaced out appropriately for everyone else.
"It means a lot," he said, "and I really appreciate the people who are going the extra length to put these events on for us and for me here. I really appreciate it."
Mead Hall Episcopal School
Mead Hall Episcopal School will honor its seniors with a Graduation Parade from 9:45 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. May 22.
“The graduates will be gathered together in their caps and gowns on the Aiken Prep Campus while the school families and guests drive through in their cars to congratulate them,” the Rev. Dr. Frank Sawyer, Head of School, wrote in an email. “At the end of the parade they will throw their caps in the air.”
Ashlin Goergen said she would miss Mead Hall's end-of-year traditions.
“We usually have a little lemonade stand and eat ice cream all together as a school since ours is really small,” she said. “It's the same time when we get our yearbooks, and we all sign them. It's really sad that we'll be missing that memory from our last year.”
Goergen, who will attend Clemson University in the fall to study genetics, plans to visit Mead Hall in the fall to catch up with teachers and friends she hasn't seen since schools closed in March.
“All of our teachers have been really supportive and forgiving and lenient with working with us, and that's been really good,” she said. “I'm almost done.”
Logan Zollinger summed up missing the last two and a half months of his senior year at Mead Hall succinctly: “It kind of stinks.”
He said he especially will miss being able to say goodbye to his teachers and friends.
“Because we haven't been able to go back to our classes and finish up the year, we haven't been able to have a slow goodbye to any of our teachers. I don't even remember when I last saw my teachers,” he said. “When we eventually get to go back for the parade, that will be our last goodbye, and it will be really quick. It's like you snap your fingers, and all the teachers and relationships you had are just gone.”
South Aiken High School
J'shon Horn, who is on the South Aiken High wrestling team, recently signed to wrestle at Lander University next year, but, like many other athletes, his signing ceremony was held at home. He said he's been working out at home, too, as best he can.
"The ability to train is really bad right now,” he said. “Like, I have a little weight set in my house, so I'm still doing arm workouts. Other than that, going out and running is hard because there's a lot of people at Odell Weeks walking around all day. So I've been in my neighborhood riding around on my longboard, just getting leg workouts in and upper body."
Horn said he will miss “everyone here in Aiken.”
“It's been a little rough, doing all this online schoolwork and stuff,” he said. “Other than that, it's been fine getting to relax and actually take a breath and step back and be, like, 'This is my last year in high school. Soon I'm gonna be off in college doing what I love.'”
Emily Crenshaw had a similar reaction, saying she was “kind of excited” when schools closed.
“That probably sounds bad, but it was kind of nice,” she said. “We did miss out on prom. That was a little sad.”
Crenshaw said she will miss two teachers in particular who have been influential during her senior year: Rachelle Mason, who teaches AP statistics, and Dee Dee Redd, who teaches AP calculus.
“They care about everyone,” Crenshaw said. “They try to make everything at school better any way they can. They go out of their way to make sure everyone has a good high school experience.”
Crenshaw will play volleyball at USC Upstate in Spartanburg next year and, for now, she said, will major in nursing.
Caleb Eichelberger said he's disappointed he and his classmates are missing out on some of his senior year activities, like prom – he already had everything picked out to go with the “Modern Vision” theme – and sports, that seniors look forward to their entire school careers but added, “We shouldn't let this get us down.”
“We worked hard, and even through this, we're still working hard to get what we need to get done to graduate,” he said. “Don't get your heads down during this. Keep them up. We'll get through this.”
Eichelberger played offensive tackle at South Aiken High and will play football in the fall at Charleston Southern University.
South Aiken High's graduation ceremony will be at 10 a.m. June 5 at the school's football field.
Teachers and principals also miss the end-of-the-year senior traditions.
Kimberly Baynham, who has been the graduation sponsor at Aiken High for 11 years, said it's a “sad time.”
“They've left, and we didn't get to have a moment for that little talk or just to tell them that we're so proud of them and they're going to do great things. That's been hard,” said Baynham, who has taught seniors for 18 of her 19 years in education. “When you've had that for every year you've taught and all of a sudden you don't, you realize how much you appreciate that – appreciate the kids when they say will you sign my yearbook or can I friend you on Facebook. The relationships you have with kids are so special. Everyone got a little cheated on that.”
South Aiken High Principal Sam Fuller said senior year is many students' “last real chance to be a kid.”
“We're trying to find as many ways as possible to let them know that we understand their senior year has been cut short and is not the way they wanted it to end. It's not the way we wanted it to end,” Fuller said. “It's an impactful time, and that was kind of taken away from them. It wasn't anybody's fault, but it was taken away from them. We just want to recognize that and just make them feel better."
Fuller said not being able to celebrate with the seniors is disappointing for him and his teachers, too.
“We're people people,” he said. “We do this because we love being around kids. We love being around each other. To not have that aspect at school, it's tough on the kids and tough on us as well because we're not having those relationships that we love.”