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COVID-19 doesn’t stop Class of ’20 on seniors' big day

‘If anything, this makes us stronger’

Weaver High School students marched onto Burgess-Snow Field on Thursday morning clad in caps and gowns for a graduation ceremony that, until a week ago, wasn’t going to happen. 

Or not in the way they’d have liked, at least. The COVID-19 pandemic had over the last two months already wrecked their plans for senior proms, class trips and the final months of senior year, just as it had for countless other high schoolers across Alabama and the nation. Calhoun County and municipal education officials in early May had considered other ways to deliver diplomas with social distancing rules in effect; drive-thru pick-ups and video-recorded ceremonies edited to feel more full than they were. Some school systems delayed graduations. But after Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Public Health relaxed stay-at-home rules, some school leaders decided last week to charge ahead with graduation ceremonies on their planned dates

And so, at 10 a.m. Thursday, Weaver students walked under a cloudless sky across the field at Jacksonville State University to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” gold sashes and bedazzled mortarboards sparkling in the sunshine, to sit in chairs on the field spaced 6 feet apart. In the stands above the field, family and friends sat in groups of up to 15; between those groups ran 6-foot-wide tributaries of caution. 

The ceremony wasn’t quite traditional, but with the pandemic still on, it was close enough.

“It’s going to be a story for your kids and your grandkids,” reflected graduate Kayleigh Hindsman, waiting beneath the stadium’s concrete bleachers with her classmates for the ceremony to begin.

“It’s going to be an interesting story to tell,” said her friend, graduate Rylee Hewitt, 16. “Knowing that you were part of something so big, that’s all around you and all around the world, it’s kind of cool — well, it’s not cool, but you know what I’m saying.”

‘I’m skating to freedom’ 

Students throughout the county had the chance to walk Thursday, picking up diplomas and finding closure for a school year that had simply evaporated. 

Wellborn High School graduates Jacey Knighton and Abby Flores were among a group of friends who’d been planning a senior trip — they were considering Gatlinburg or the beach — when the pandemic hit. Now that plan is on hold.

As other soon-to-be graduates gathered in the parking lot at Wellborn on Thursday evening, both saw classmates they hadn’t seen in months, and knew they were seeing them for the last time. 

“It’s sad,” Flores said.

Both described life under lockdown as dull.

“I’ve been so bored, I’m eating all the time,” Knighton said. “I’m eating my boredom away.”

Knighton said she hopes to get a job at a day care after graduation. Classmate XyQawn Woodruff said he hopes to go to school to become an aircraft mechanic. Graduate Fred Taylor said he’ll go to college and major in business, but that’s work for later. On Thursday night, Taylor was focused on being a high school student no longer.

“I’m skating to freedom,” he said.

Oxford High School held the first of four ceremonies Thursday at Lamar Field, with another set for later in the evening and two more Friday, accommodating the school’s large senior class. By 7 p.m. the sunshine had waned and an unseasonably cool breeze buffeted the crowd — huddled in packs of four or fewer — as they held colorful graduation balloons and clutched their cameras. 

Valedictorian Camelle Calhoun acknowledged in her address to the crowd that missing senior events, ceremonies and prom had been difficult. Enrolling in universities and preparing to move during a pandemic, even more so. But there was also humor and grace in her speech. 

“Whether it’s joining together to see our football team win the state championship or connecting through social media during the pandemic,” Calhoun said, “our community has helped motivate us to do our best in everything we do and instill in us values that we will carry no matter where life takes us.”

Across the county and just a half-hour later, Piedmont High School students and families had assembled for a graduation ceremony at the school’s Field of Champions.

Grady Houlditch, father of graduate Melony Link, said she and other students had overcome a lot since the pandemic started.