Skyline High School senior Alex O’Neill-Payne, 18, of Front Royal stands outside the entrance to the high school on June 3. O’Neill-Payne, the class president, will gather with his classmates for graduation on Saturday at 10 a.m.

Skyline High School graduates may look back on their senior year as one of making sacrifices to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the class of 2021 can graduate in person on Saturday because Virginia relaxed restrictions on gatherings and mask requirements as COVID-19 cases fall and vaccination rates rise.

Alex O’Neill-Payne, 18, of Front Royal, president of the Class of 2021, said he’s excited to give his speech at Saturday’s ceremony.

“I worked pretty hard on (the speech). I wrote it at 1 a.m. and — bad as that probably is — I got a lot of inspiration very late at night,” O’Neill-Payne said recently. “So I’m excited just to be able to talk to everyone and see everyone’s face again one last time.”

The student-athlete said that the pandemic forced students to learn subjects from remote locations through computer screens rather than in a classroom. Restrictions on gatherings kept students from hanging out in school. Whether or not athletes could play sports in their last year remained uncertain.

O’Neill-Payne takes dual-enrollment classes through Lord Fairfax Community College. He’s played varsity soccer for four years, basketball for two years, and he’s been involved with the National Honor Society.

O’Neill-Payne called his senior year “weird” and found it “definitely hard to learn online.” But the change from in-person to virtual classes and a mix of the two helped him to manage his time, he said. O’Neill-Payne said playing school sports already taught him time management.

Prior to the pandemic, he would be in school most of the day, go to play a soccer game andthen come home late at night to do three hours of homework.

“I almost had too much time,” O’Neill-Payne said about his pandemic schedule.

The pandemic also forced school divisions to cancel many of the activities seniors expect in their last year before graduation. O’Neill-Payne said the cancellation of these activities — trips, dances and other events — made the year that much tougher.

“I think it’s definitely been weird trying to organize stuff as a senior class,” O’Neill-Payne said. “We’ve literally been allowed to do almost nothing, which, I get it. It’s been hard to come up with any kind of idea just to get us all together one last time before we all go our separate ways.”

Although the senior class couldn’t put on a school-sponsored prom, a group of residents organized a prom that was held downtown and attended by more than 200 seniors. O’Neill-Payne said he enjoyed the prom and thanked the organizers for putting on the event for the senior class.

O’Neill-Payne said that seniors still hope to hold the annual “Senior Sunset” at a local park, where students can gather.

O’Neill lucked out as an athlete this year, he said. The school did not need to push back or change the varsity soccer schedule as it did for some sports. Although one player contracted COVID-19, the timing did not affect the schedule, he said. And none of the players had to stay in quarantine, which could have hampered the team’s ability to play.

In the fall, O’Neill-Payne plans to attend Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond to study exercise science and then study physical therapy. He chose the career path after he performed well in a dual-enrollment anatomy class.

“It sucks being injured so I wanna be, like, that person to help it not suck as much,” said O’Neill-Payne, who recently spent two months in physical therapy to treat a sprained knee.

– Contact Alex Bridges at