Students Keep Communities Informed During Virus Shutdown

BY JAY P. GOLDMAN/School Administrator, June 2020

The producers and reporters on the student news program at Fort Osage High School in Independence, Mo., were days away from producing their weekly broadcast when they learned their school would be closing at the end of the day March 13 because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Undeterred by the unexpected shutdown and the requirement to maintain physical distance from anyone outside their family, members of the broadcast news program “Tribal Review” mobilized from their homes using smartphones, iPads, Chromebooks, Snapchat and FaceTime to produce a 13-minute program. Published one week later on YouTube, the news show hosted by two editors carried images of deserted school hallways and playing fields, an interview with their school’s principal on his priorities during the closure, segments on how various students were using their days at home and advice for viewers on keeping germ-free during the public health crisis.

The program’s faculty adviser, Benjamin Merithew, worked with the students in the days leading up to the broadcast while also supporting a handful of eager student reporters for The Signal, the school’s online news publication, to develop fresh coverage of the pandemic’s impact on their school year.

“I’m obviously proud of the students who are doing something and covering these uncertain times,” Merithew says.

Scholastic journalism shined in other quarters during the first several weeks of interrupted school operations. The online publications served to keep affected students and their families informed and to provide periodic reminders of safe personal behavior as evidence of the COVID-19 virus accelerated quickly through virtually every state.

“The kids … seem to be diving into this with a passion,” says Candace Perkins Bowen, who directs the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University. “They realize no one else is going to tell their story because there are so many stories out there to tell.”

At Mona Shores High School in Norton Shores, Mich., the student newspaper staff was about to send off its March 26 issue of The Sailor’s Log to the printer when they were forced to finalize plans from their homes. Student reporters scrambled at the 11th hour to add virus-related coverage, according to newspaper adviser Warren Kent III. The result was a 12-page PDF-only edition with a cover featuring “Viral Reality,” a prominent column titled “Stay Safe During This Coronacation” and a full-length news story “Left With an Empty Feeling.”

In Saegertown, Pa., Stacey Hetrick, adviser of The Panther Press, says her students worked quickly to add relevant coverage to their fifth issue of the school year, posted online on March 20, a week after the state closed all public schools. The eight-page issue included a reassuring message from the school’s principal and an opinion column by the managing editor headlined “Corona Class of 2020.”

In addition, the school’s journalists continued to provide up-to-date information though the publication’s Twitter feed, website and Instagram account. Some of the students’ daily accounts, in a series they titled “Saegertown Shutdown Stories” featuring what students and staff are doing during their time away from school, have been republished in the local newspaper, The Meadville Tribune.

“We just decided that we were going to do everything we could to keep our community informed and connected, and our goal was that people wouldn’t feel so alone in this,” Hetrick says.

At Northwood High School in Silver Spring, Md., students involved with Northwood Update, a video newscast broadcast every weekday morning on YouTube during the school year, considered it a logical move to begin producing a weekly “at home” edition during their unanticipated school closure in mid-March.

Senior producer Charlie Kretkowski admits his inspiration came from watching local TV news anchors do live segments from their home offices to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Kretkowski, who hopes to study film in college beginning this fall, took that comfy feel one step further, hosting the first weekly show on March 27 with his computer perched on his bed at home.

“I felt like many Northwood students were getting [and] spreading information through social media and word of mouth that wasn’t 100 percent accurate,” he says. “Working with school administrators to get the real Northwood news to the Northwood community definitely set the story straight.”

The inaugural 9½-minute news program featured an offbeat segment showing how one Northwood student was finding imaginative ways to use her time alone and a series of brief videos of assistant principals trying to maintain order among their young children at home.

“Assuming that schools are closed for a month or longer, we already have a calendar for things we want to cover,” says Kretkowski, adding he wants to resume school sooner than later to finish his senior year once the spread of the virus is contained. “Whatever happens, I know that my crew will be prepared for it. We are used to doing a live TV show every day after all.”

JAY GOLDMAN is editor of School Administrator magazine. Twitter: @jpgoldman