LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After an unprecedented school year amid a pandemic, seniors of Jefferson County Public Schools are rounding out their time in high school with in-person graduation ceremonies.
Western High School seniors were among the Class of 2021 students to walk across a stage to receive their diploma, something the class before them didn't get to experience.
"I've been waiting for this moment forever. I am so excited," Ciera Clayton said.
"It's a very emotional moment, you know, but I did it. I made it. I made it," Timothy Barnett said.
Western High School graduates said before their Thursday ceremony, they are extra thankful to be able to graduate in-person in front of friends and family, along with their classmates.
"It feels good. I thought I wasn’t going to graduate this year. But I surprised myself and I surprised my family," Guillermo Arias-Silguero said. "Just being able to graduate in-person, even though we missed a lot of key events as a senior, I feel like we deserve it."
It was a celebration of more than just completed classes, but also the completion of more than a year of virtual learning, separated from other students and teachers.
"I thought it was going to take a lot longer than this to graduate. It came a lot faster than I thought," Barnett said.
"It's been an incredible year for all of us. There are challenges that we faced and we learned from that," Western High School Principal Anthony Sieg, said. "I'm really proud. Like a proud parent.”
Sieg said his Western staff has reminded students through the challenging year to continue to look forward.
"There are obstacles you will face throughout your life and this is just one of them. You continue to face obstacles, don’t let that slow you down," he said.
Sieg said he's looking ahead to next school year, when his students return in August in person.
"It's what we're best at. There certainly were challenges with this current school year. It didn’t work like it was supposed to work, it didn’t work for all the kids like it was supposed to work, but getting back in-person next year we look for things to be back to normal as much as possible," Sieg said.
As more than JCPS 6,000 students graduate this year, thousands more look ahead to next year as the district plans to return fully in person five days a week.
"There will not be any hybrids. There will be full 100% in person," JCPS Superintendent Dr. Marty Pollio said.
Dr. Pollio said despite the school year's challenges, it was a "success." But he said the district is already prepared for the work ahead to prepare for the upcoming year.
"There is no doubt that going back in person was worth it and then getting past hump of getting back in school," Dr. Pollio said. "We know we have challenges ahead of us. We have had learning loss for students. There's no doubt about it.”
The district won't require vaccinations for returning students and doesn't know exactly yet what COVID-19 protocols, like masks and social distancing, will look like if they need to be in place.
"It has been a school year I don't think anyone will ever forget," Dr. Pollio said.