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The closures began at random, like kernels bursting out of hot oil onto the kitchen stove. A high school in Snohomish County, Washington, closed for cleaning after a student tested positive. Two districts in Westchester County, New York, would close for several days after two students and a parent were possibly exposed to a novel coronavirus. Two schools in the wealthy Boston suburb of Wellesley closed abruptly after a parent tested positive.
It was the first week of March 2020. Several countries had already shuttered schools in the hopes of containing outbreaks. In the United States, by the second week of March, seven governors mandated statewide school closures. Massachusetts and others quickly followed suit.
Like many journalists, I hunkered down as the pandemic ramped up. I was one of four people covering early through higher education for WBUR, one of Boston’s public radio stations. We were inundated with incremental updates and questions from our audience to investigate, each with equal pressing importance. There weren’t enough of us or enough time to report everything. It quickly became clear the constant triage of rolling news coverage was not sustainable. This moment required a different approach — not just in terms of what we were covering but who we were covering.
As novel as the situation was, there was a familiarity to this breaking news wave. Like many others, I woke early and went to bed late, trying to make sense of what was happening and why. But it quickly became clear, as the shock waves of news stretched into days, that we couldn’t put enterprise reporting on hold for the entirety of the crisis. Our audience needed us to do more than just react to the latest press conference or policy announcement.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the myriad of services families rely on that schools provide: meals, dental care, specialists, a safe space with a caring adult. Much of that support went away almost overnight. Who could weather this upheaval? Who wouldn’t? What would make the difference for them? Was a large part of an entire generation at risk of being left behind?
We hear a lot about inequity in the field of education: who has access to opportunities, who doesn’t, and why. The pandemic acted almost as a high-contrast dye exposing how newsrooms cover these long-standing, structural barriers that BIPOC communities and poorer Americans face. The crisis laid bare that it is not enough to attend a school committee meeting or a protest to check the pro and con boxes for your story. If education journalists are serious about covering inequity, we need to seek out the families and students that aren’t able to attend those events. Otherwise, we are only telling part of the story — the easiest one.
The pandemic made clear that we had to prioritize reaching the students who were not able to log on because of technological, economic, behavioral, or other reasons. It takes more work, but it is fundamental. And it’s a lesson we need to carry forward.
Accessing classrooms has always involved hurdles — most often in the form of a public relations flack acting as guardian of the building. Once the classroom moved to Zoom or became a packet of printouts, we all had to rely on our sources more heavily to understand what the classroom reality was. But our sources only have their reality, from their end of the screen. As every teacher knows, each student has their own needs and issues they are dealing with.
Some of the sourcing for our reporting came with little effort as so much of our work shifted online. We could get updates from press briefings and school board meetings online quickly without leaving our desks. Even protests over school closures and reopening were livestreamed. We could churn out the news efficiently to our audience.
But that efficiency came with a price. In that fast pace, most people we ended up speaking with had reliable internet. Participants logged into a public meeting were able to work from home or had schedules flexible enough to accommodate Zoom meetings. According to the most recent federal data, 14% of children nationwide did not have internet service at home. Districts rolled out hotspots, and some students drove to school or college parking lots in order to complete their work. Many students were not logging on at all. I worried we could start reporting from a delusion: thinking we had unprecedented access when we were actually on the sidelines.
The key is being out in the field, connecting with students in their homes or hang-out spots. The most stand-out reporting from this period was accountability journalism with a narrative heartbeat. Take, for example, Samantha Shapiro’s powerful reporting on homeless students for The New York Times Magazine. She spoke with more than a dozen families to understand the way the system is set up and what a strain that is for families. The Boston Globe sent journalists to school meal pickup sites and bus stops at the beginning of the pandemic, as part of understanding and following what the pandemic disruptions meant for some families. That kind of engagement should continue. Smaller newsrooms should prioritize that relationship-building journalism as a core tenet of how they cover their communities.
No one was untouched by the pandemic. But it was not a singular experience. Some of us have lost loved ones, others don’t have a single close family member or friend who became ill. Some of us discovered the joy of pickleball or pickling jars, while others were crushed by the avalanche of responsibilities on our shoulders. Some teachers discovered new techniques and perspectives, others have been wrung dry. Some students learned more independence and confidence or took on new projects and activism, others have back-slid on the many hard-won progressions. Even these are over-simplified dichotomies. There are so many more gradations.