“We’re documenting history”: How students are reporting, producing and distributing yearbooks during the coronavirus pandemic

Photo courtesy of Samantha Berry, yearbook adviser at Bridgeland High School in Cypress, Texas. Because the school was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Berry's students had to work late nights on laptops from cars parked in the school's lot to get the server access they needed to finish the yearbook.

At the beginning of March, yearbook staffs around the country were putting the final touches on spreads they’d been working on for months, getting ready to send final copies to printing plants to be printed and distributed like normal. Now, just weeks later, the COVID-19 outbreak has thrown yearbook students and advisers into chaos. 

RELATED: See yearbook spreads about the coronavirus

Social distancing and public safety concerns have complicated the printing and distribution process, and the disruption and economic downturn have caused advisers to worry about low yearbook sales. Many staff members are working late nights and having countless video conference meetings and messages to ensure they meet their deadlines and produce a yearbook that documents the effects of the global pandemic in their communities and schools. 

The challenges facing yearbooks has become a national story, drawing coverage from The Washington Post. 

Writing history

Because of the rapid spread of the virus in the U.S., yearbook staff members and advisers had to adapt quickly and find ways to produce a yearbook from home. Some schools were in the middle of spring break when they got word that they would not be returning to school for the foreseeable future. 

Michael Simons, adviser of the Tesserae yearbook at Corning-Painted Post High School in Corning, New York, said their teachers only had one day to get ready before school closures were announced in their district.

Simons, who is also the co-president of Columbia Scholastic Press Advisers’ Association, said normally, when Tesserae is finalized, the book includes content up to mid-March. Then, the yearbook staff puts together a 32-page spring supplement that is glued into the book. It typically includes spreads on spring sports and events like prom. This year, according to Liz Hogrefe, co-editor of the Tesserae, the supplement will be 16 pages long and cover how the virus affected their peers. Simons said the spread was cut to reduce production costs.

The supplement will include spreads about students whose work in grocery stores is now considered hazardous, essential work during the pandemic, and how people are keeping themselves busy while social distancing. Simons added they are including a spread titled ‘Dear Corona,’ where students write directly to the virus about how it affected them.

(Tesserae’s spread on students who work in grocery stores, courtesy of Mike Simons.)

“To authenticate and validate students’ stories and lived experiences, that’s student media at its best,” Simons said. “The ‘20 and the ‘21 books could be the coronavirus books … These books at their best, hopefully, are going to capture and memorialize this moment in time that we’re all living through together.

Hogrefe said the spring supplement will try to capture the student body’s collective feeling of uncertainty. She said she hopes that with their coronavirus coverage, students will be more understanding and patient with one another. 

“The journalism itself is changing,” Hogrefe said. “I suppose at least for me, I’m not thinking so much about how it’s different, but just how to adapt and continue to tell these stories as best as we can.”

To authenticate and validate students’ stories and lived experiences, that’s student media at its best

Samantha Berry is the president-elect of Texas Association of Journalism Educators, and the adviser of Kodiak, the Bridgeland High School yearbook in Cypress, Texas. She said most of Kodiak‘s spreads were completed before they went on spring break. 

But during spring break the district announced schools were closing, forcing Kodiak to revisit spreads and write about how major events were affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Events like the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which many students and their families participate in, were canceled and spring sports seasons ended early. 

Bridgeland High School is only three years old, so the class of 2020 is its first senior class. Berry said the yearbook was framed by that milestone. She said a lot of the yearbook spreads discussed how “they were finally a normal high school,” but now, with hallmark events like prom being canceled, yearbook staff has to figure out how to document what happened and who it affected. She said years from now, students will be using this yearbook to tell stories to their children and grandchildren.

“We’re documenting history and this is a huge historical moment,” Berry said. “This is going to be something that kids study in history classes 50 or 60 years from now.” 

On March 13, Emery Eisner, editor-in-chief of Phi Psi Cli, Elon University’s yearbook in Elon, North Carolina, learned with the rest of her peers that campus was closing and students would not be returning to school after spring break. Once she got acclimated to the new reality of digital learning, Eisner put together a remote team of 10 staff members who were willing to continue working on the book from home. 

Tesserae, Kodiak and Phi Psi Cli staff all had their design software, written content and photos on school servers, and had to find workarounds quickly now that they were finishing yearbooks remotely 

Simons said Tesserae was lucky — the superintendent asked Simons how the district could support the yearbook staff and then allowed students to take five school computers home to finish the book. Berry’s school district provided eight new laptops for journalism students and editors were able to take them home to use. 

We’re documenting history

Both Tesserae and Kodiak staff members are working on laptops in their cars in their school parking lots to log in to school servers. Berry herself spent up to four hours every day working in her car to finish the book. 

Eisner said for the first two weeks of remote instruction, staff members had difficulty getting server access to Adobe In-Design and their photo files. Now, all editors have a Virtual Private Network link that they use to edit the book. She also said figuring out how to report on their campus community from miles away has been a big adjustment. Like many student journalists, they are conducting interviews and interacting with their fellow staff members virtually. 

Eisner said they had to cut a total of eight spreads because of decreased senior ad sales and less spring sports coverage. The yearbook originally planned five spreads for spring sports, but they reduced it to one. Phi Psi Cli is collaborating with the university’s student news outlet, Elon News Network, to feature articles and photos in the book. They are working on finding creative ways to visually represent events, like commencement, that won’t occur in person this spring.

Impact on finances

Simons said many advisers are struggling to sell yearbooks this spring, and are sensitive that many parents and guardians have lost jobs in numbers that, as of April 16, 2020, are approaching levels last seen during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In a normal year, many schools would be doing a final push for yearbook sales about a month before distributing the book. But the economic toll of the pandemic has damaged usual sales. 

Tesserae typically asks local businesses that advertised in the book to sponsor one or more “angel books” for students, usually seniors, who cannot afford one. But they aren’t able to offer that option this year because of major financial strains on local businesses that are temporarily closed – and some that may never reopen.

Tesserae ordered 850 copies of the yearbook and has sold 700 as of April 15. Simons originally ordered 900, but dropped the number because he anticipated lower yearbook sales. As of now, they still need to sell at least 120 more books to break even. If they don’t sell enough, they will have to work with their yearbook company, Herff Jones, to figure out a payment plan where they can pay off this year’s book in the fall. 

Tesserae has $8,000 set aside in an emergency fund, but Simons recognizes that many yearbooks will not have money to fall back on. Simons encouraged high school yearbooks facing debt to work closely with their yearbook company’s sales representative to figure out a payment plan that works for their school and yearbook budget. 

Simons is working with the school business office to figure out different approaches to sell yearbooks. He said he has seen other yearbooks around the country offer to cancel and refund their yearbook orders by a certain date, or ask alumni to sponsor books for students.

Berry said the Kodiak was lucky. They sold enough yearbooks and senior ads to pay off the cost of the book. However, she is already anticipating a drop in yearbook sales in the next academic year, because so many people lost work and may still be trying to recover financially a year from now.

Berry said she’s been paying close attention to how many yearbooks have gone into debt from the crash in sales, and Kodiak will be careful about ordering books they have not presold. 

Berry suggests using previous years’ data to plan a sales strategy. She said the yearbook must make a sustained effort to emphasize the value of having a yearbook. As soon as the 2020-2021 school year starts, she plans to have yearbook staff contact every person that bought a book this year and ask if they are planning to purchase a book again. 

Eisner said Phi Psi Cli reduced the number of spreads dedicated to senior portraits from 10 to nine and senior ads from 12 to nine, because they anticipated lower ad sales. Eisner also said that they have had to hold off from paying editors their stipend at the end of the semester. Editors have to wait until the fall to sign required work agreements in order to be paid.

Amanda Reynolds, director of corporate communications at Balfour, a major producer of yearbooks in the U.S., said the company anticipates it will be adversely affected by the financial fallout of the virus, but is doing everything in its power to keep workers employed. 

Their sales representatives are working with individual schools to revise deadline plans. This includes waiving late fees for schools that don’t meet their original deadline to send final spreads. Reynolds said Balfour is asking some schools that get their yearbook in spring not to reduce their order quantities because before the plant was closed, many schools’ books had already started to print. She said they’ve also seen indications that there is high student demand for these books.

“We don’t make blanket policies on a lot of things because there are always exceptions,” Reynolds said in an email. She stressed that things will look different from school to school.

Simons and Berry are hopeful that because this is a historic book, more students will want to purchase it. According to Reynolds, Balfour is seeing increases in yearbook sales at many schools.

Distributing and signing the books

Many printing plants are currently shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Simons and Berry said they don’t know when their printing plants will reopen or how long it will take to print and distribute the yearbooks to students.

Reynolds said as soon as shelter-in-place orders are lifted and it’s safe for people to return to work in Texas, where Balfour’s printing plant is, the plant will restart manufacturing the books. Typically the printing process takes six weeks, but could go faster if the plant is able to ramp up to full capacity, where people work in three separate shifts to increase efficiency. Balfour also has an offsite warehouse and extra storage space to hold yearbooks if schools are unable to receive their deliveries and need to delay their orders. Some schools are considering direct-to-home shipping options, which come with additional shipping costs.

As soon as we don’t have to social distance and I have my yearbook, I’ll go to each of my friend’s houses if I have to and get my yearbook signed. Because I worked too hard on that thing to not have that.

Simons said many advisers are concerned about the potential health risks of handling cardboard boxes – and especially passing individual books out. Simons said advisers have discussed options like a drive-thru pick up, sterilizing the book and individually wrapping the books. 

Berry said while she thinks there is no way around a summer delivery, she is unsure if she will be able to receive and store the 1,500-book shipment at the school for a long amount of time. After the staff receives the books, they usually take one to two weeks to sort through the yearbooks to make sure they are in good condition and have printed correctly. However, Berry doesn’t know if that will be possible this year.

Signing yearbooks will also be a drastically different experience for students this year. Berry said decisions on distributing and signing yearbook festivities will be up to what each individual adviser believes will be best for their community. She’s made it a high priority to find a way for students to sign each other’s books, even if it’s a signing party in August before many by-then graduated seniors leave for college.

Hogrefe said Tesserae has not figured out a plan for signing yearbooks once they are delivered. Traditionally, the yearbook staff has a “Distro-day” where they set up their books, have cookies and cupcakes, decorate the school’s common area with streamers and yearbook’s theme colors and wear yearbook t-shirts. Hogrefe said she looked forward to this event all year, but now it is something she will miss out on. She isn’t giving up on getting her book signed, though.

“Personally I know that as soon as we don’t have to social distance and I have my yearbook, I’ll go to each of my friend’s houses if I have to and get my yearbook signed,” Hogrefe said. “Because I worked too hard on that thing to not have that.”

Adjusting to a new reality

The unexpected shift in the school year has been a difficult adjustment for students and advisers. Hogrefe, a senior in high school, said she’s had to lean on her co-editors and adviser for support. 

“Not only is this totally changing the nature of our coverage and the stories that we tell, but we’re also having all our normal circumstances taken away from us,” Hogrefe said.

if we can give our kids something, an anchor, a touchpoint, a little bit of solace and comfort, if that comes in the form of a yearbook, I’m proud to be part of it

Berry said as an educator the hardest part of being away from school, other than getting used to constant online communication, is being away from her students.

“Right now it’s really difficult to miss them, not know if they’re telling you the truth when you ask them how they’re doing with their learning,” Berry said “Knowing they’re sad and lonely and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The same uncertainty that makes producing and distributing yearbooks so difficult has also been a source of motivation for some.

“These yearbooks may be … the one little bit of normalcy that our students get this spring and early summer and that’s a remarkable thing, that’s a tremendous responsibility,” Simons said. “I don’t want to overstate how much a yearbook matters …  But, if we can give our kids something, an anchor, a touchpoint, a little bit of solace and comfort, if that comes in the form of a yearbook, I’m proud to be part of it. It’s an awesome thing.”

*Correction: A previous version of the article states that Balfour sales representatives are working with schools to devise payment plans, we corrected it to state that Balfour is individually working with schools to revise production plans. We also clarified Balfour is waiving late fees for missed deadlines on delivering spreads, not fees associated with missed payments.

SPLC reporter Alicia Thomas can be reached by email at athomas@splc.org or by calling 202-974-6318.

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