Much like many other high school seniors across the country, students in the Auburn High School class of 2020 found themselves graduating at an abnormal time during the COVID-19 pandemic. They received their diplomas in small groups unlike classes past, distant from most of their peers and teachers.
To make up for this breakaway from tradition, Auburn City Schools honored its outgoing AHS students with a bang on Thursday night with its Senior Sunset Sendoff. Graduates and families were welcomed back to the school to participate in a "Tiger Drive" and be treated to a brief fireworks show.
The evening's event commenced at 7 p.m. with students entering the school parking lot from Samford Avenue in their vehicles as part of the Tiger Drive. Faculty from a number of schools in the ACS system were there to cheer them on, as well as members of the ACS board and Aubie. Blue and white balloons, outfits and pom poms created a sea of school colors.
"This event was scheduled to send them into the college or career or work world with our love and best wishes," said Cristen Herring, ACS superintendent. "The class of 2020 is resilient; they've persevered through very unprecedented times, and it's our pleasure to celebrate them tonight."
Many vehicles seen in the Tiger Drive were decorated in recognition of their departing graduates in place of the typical designed graduation cap. Windows were adorned with goodbye messages and doors with students' faces while onlookers cheered and waved.
Hollis Davis, a health teacher and the varsity girls' tennis coach at AHS, called the sendoff a "bittersweet" time after the months since the school's spring classes were canceled.
"We've hated to see their senior year end the way it did, but to be able to do something special like this, we've never done this for any other class," Davis said. "Having them be able to see all their teachers throughout their school years and culminating here with the high school, I think it's special for them. Some of the girls that I coached had just said how nice it had been and what a surprise it turned out the way it did."
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Similar feelings resonated with Ayan Merchant and Jesus Barragan, both AHS class of 2020 graduates, who were appreciative of ACS wanted to give them what they felt was a proper goodbye.
"I'm glad we're doing something like this ... I'm happy about how everyone's celebrating us," Merchant said. "The whole lockdown happened right on spring break, and the next week was our prom. It's kinda sad I didn't get to go to my final prom or my graduation, too, but honestly it's already passed. I'm glad nobody else gets this except for us — this is the class of 2020, this is the best class."
Barragan said he was impressed by the turnout to the event despite students being properly graduated at this point.
"I already got [my diploma], but a lot of people came out," he said.
The festivities were initially more formal, but changes of the coronavirus outlook meant there needed to be another way to see seniors off through celebration as a larger graduation would.
"Our original plans were to offer a full graduation ceremony this evening, but as the COVID-19 threat continued and heightened, we did not feel like we could offer safely the large-scale ceremony," Herring said. "The graduation ceremonies have actually been held in small groups inside our auditorium."
Herring said having faculty from all throughout ACS was intended to be symbolic of students' many years of progression from early education to their final year of high school.
"Many of these students have been a part of the [ACS] system since kindergarten; they started at Auburn Early Education Center, and they've matriculated through the elementary schools," she said. "That's why the Tiger Drive from Samford to the parking lot is lined with all 12 schools they attended before they reached AHS, and then the faculty of the high school is here, and then the Board of Education sends them off. It truly is a community-wide celebration."
Some students also chose to personally show their development through photos on their vehicles, such as Hannah Morris, a graduate in the AHS class of 2020. Her family said designing their truck, which displayed pictures of a younger Morris over the years, was an "all-day event."
Morris said she was pleased at the extent of how ACS chose to pay tribute to students leaving the school system.
"I think it was really cute, it was a lot more than I expected," she said, smiling. "I saw a couple of my teachers [and] I kinda wanted to cry."
A loud radio tuned into station WLEE 96.3 blasted a curated playlist of songs specially chosen for the sendoff as students entered school property. The station also played a radio show in conjunction with Auburn Bank between 7:30-8:30 p.m. featuring congratulatory messages from Mayor Ron Anders, Herring and other school leaders.
Once the arrival of graduates trickled before finally coming to an end, students and families brought out folding chairs, opened pickup truck beds and donned face masks as they grouped together to witness the fireworks. The show began at 8:30 p.m., with firecrackers erupting into blue, white and other colors in between for about five minutes.
"ACS is blessed to have the support of a terrific school community; the parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors and families have helped celebrate these students," Herring said of those who helped make the event happen. "The outpouring of support tonight just shows the love and effort that's been invested in these kids getting them to graduation. It's truly something special to see the love and the connection between school and family that helps these children prepare for their future."
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