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111-year-old Baylor homecoming traditions go mostly online because of COVID-19 concerns

111-year-old Baylor homecoming traditions go mostly online because of COVID-19 concerns

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There will be no home football game with a stadium packed with thousands of fans, no parade with floats that had students burning gallons of the midnight oil to finish. There will be no class reunions or departmental get-togethers, no bonfire, no in-person gatherings to sing or watch performances.

The Baylor University homecoming festivities that started Thursday are unlike any others since the first Baylor homecoming 111 years ago, transformed by COVID-19 restrictions and protective measures.

But there will still be homecoming events, either held online or in scaled-down, socially distanced versions. Friday’s traditional pep rally will be limited to students, held at McLane Stadium and its grounds, and a fireworks show rather than a bonfire will cap the evening.

After months of working on ever-shifting plans, largely through videoconferencing and complicated by the occasional COVID-19 quarantine, homecoming Chair and psychology major Bailey Havis is approaching a sigh of relief. Havis and her committee members got administrative approval for the in-person rally at McLane Stadium only two weeks ago, but were thankful when it came.

“I was hopeful to have something in-person and I’m glad we were able to make that happen,” she said.

The student-only pep rally at 8:30 p.m. Friday is one of the few in-person homecoming activities to survive this year with restrictions on large gatherings and other COVID-19 precautions eliminating much of the traditional homecoming event calendar.

Saturday’s scheduled football game between Baylor and Oklahoma State University was postponed to Dec. 12 slightly more than a week ago after an increase of COVID-19 cases in the football program. The homecoming parade from downtown Waco to the Baylor campus, with thousands crowding sidewalks to watch, was canceled. Class reunions that normally fill a homecoming Friday moved to spring.

Other traditions went virtual. The freshman Mass Meeting went online Thursday, but was opened to more than the freshman class. Singspiration, an evening of worship music and singing, also moved online Thursday.

Pigskin Revue, a replay of the eight winning song-and-dance productions from the previous University Sing, shifted from live performances to documentary video shot at Sing, augmented with interviews and background footage. The video presentation is available online at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday with tickets available at baylor.edu/homecoming, along with a full schedule of the weekend’s events.

Friday’s pep rally will be a hybrid event, in-person for students, but streamed online as well. Three floats built for a parade that did not happen will be on display on the stadium plaza, and a dozen food trucks will sub for the traditional Dinner with the Livingstones, where Baylor President Linda Livingstone and her husband would invite students to their residence to eat.

About 1,000 students, socially distanced on the stadium floor, will watch the pep rally and Pigskin Revue projected on the stadium’s big screen with other students viewing from the student and alumni tailgating areas. At the rally’s end, fireworks will be launched from the stadium roof.

Although downtown Waco will miss a homecoming parade filling Austin Avenue on Saturday, downtown visitors will be reminded of Baylor homecoming with murals on 13 storefronts as part of an “Art of Homecoming” activity that is part of this year’s celebration.

The loss of a physical homecoming, however, will be felt by Waco hotels and restaurants normally boosted by the 20,000 to 30,000 visitors the annual event usually brings to Waco. The postponement of the Baylor-Oklahoma State game is a blow, softened only by increased weekend hotel occupancy in recent weeks because of leisure travel and Magnolia Market at the Silos visitors, said Carla Pendergraft, marketing director for the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It’s still very disappointing, but everybody understands it,” Pendergraft said.

With the externals of Baylor homecoming changed, organizers aimed to refocus on its spirit and meaning.

“We never considered canceling homecoming,” Director of Student Activities Matt Burchett said.

Burchett said this year’s largely virtual celebration will allow thousands of Baylor fans, alumni and prospective students to join in where distance and finances might have prevented them in-person.

“Homecoming transcends place and certain traditions. … Our traditions are resilient,” he said. “Baylor spirit is deeply committed to find pathways to express itself.”

Similarly, Havis, the homecoming chair, and her workers found a new motto to shape their planning: “highlight, recognize and encourage.”

After Saturday, relief may be the fourth word added after weeks of planning with COVID-19 uncertainties.

“We’re all super nervous this week,” Havis said.

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