Student media advisers say they’re anxious about going back to school during COVID-19

Some student media advisers are scared going into the fall semester—both for their students’ safety, and the state of their journalism programs. Photo by Engin Akyurt via Unsplash

Sarah Verpooten watched as a parent at an Aug. 3 school board meeting advocated for returning to in-person classes. He was speaking into the microphone when he pulled down his mask to wipe his nose, pulled his mask back up, and continued speaking.

That meeting resulted in a “very surprising vote” to return to in-person classes for the fall semester at Lake Central High School in St. John, Indiana, where Verpooten teaches journalism classes. After watching an adult improperly wear a mask, Verpooten wondered how she would be able to enforce that her students wear masks in class.

Student media advisers around the country are struggling to prepare for the fall semester as they cope with last minute changes to their schools’ plans, insufficient safety measures, and a huge amount of uncertainty.

Verpooten said that her journalism, graphic design, and converged media classes are relatively collaborative and hands-on. She said she wonders how students will be able to print a magazine or yearbook if they can’t use the same equipment. But if the collaboration is taken out of learning, she’s scared students won’t want to be involved going forward.

“There’s just so much more interaction that happens in a journalism classroom than it does in a math classroom,” Verpooten said. “There’s so much collaboration to it, and when you take that piece out, I’m concerned what our numbers will look like for the following year.”

Verpooten and other journalism educators are struggling to reimagine their lesson plans to fit in with safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lake County has more than 12,000 cases and 440 deaths.

There are more than 5.4 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus and more than 170,000 deaths in the U.S., as of Aug. 19, 2020, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Despite the ever-growing numbers, many schools are returning to in-person classes. Some schools are returning underprepared, and teachers in many states are considering going on strike until their schools put safety measures in place, according to NPR.


Sarah Nichols, teacher and student media adviser at Whitney High School in Rocklin, California, and president of the Journalism Education Association, said her school is staying remote for the beginning of the fall semester. 

In Placer County, where Whitney High School is located, there are more than 2,700 confirmed cases and 30 deaths as of Aug. 21.

“Journalism teachers are planners by nature, and they go so far above and beyond to create these rich learning experiences for their students,” Nichols said. “Now that you take those certainties out of the equation, it’s one hundred million unknowns that makes it impossible to plan for anything.”

Nichols said her only option now is to try to prepare as much as she can, and “play it by ear” for what she can’t.

Bryce McNeil is the student media director at Georgia State University, and the College Media Association’s secretary. He advises five student news outlets. GSU is set to open on Aug. 24, with some face-to-face classes, some hybrid classes, and some fully online courses. Fulton County, where GSU is located, has more than 18,000 cases, and almost 400 deaths.

It’s one hundred million unknowns that makes it impossible to plan for anything

McNeil said most of the clubs agreed they do not want to be in the office and are instead working remotely, which eases some of his concerns about safety. But he said that, being in a city like Atlanta, there are frequent spikes in cases, which could affect his and his students’ situation at any time.

“I’m fairly confident that the students will manage their own safety really well,” McNeil said. “So I’m more concerned about the uncertainty of it all.”

Safety measures

Now that she knows classes will be on campus, safety is Verpooten’s number one priority.

She is scared and unsure of how she will be able to sanitize her classroom in between periods while also ensuring students wear their masks in the hallways. She is also trying to make sure her lesson plans are conducive to students staying away from each other. However, she acknowledged that social distancing will not be a possibility most of the time.

She said she and other teachers feel unprepared without the personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves necessary to keep everyone safe.

“With our teachers union and a lot of my teacher friends, we feel really underresouced, and that’s not just our school,” Verpooten said. “We’re not, as a nation, prepared to arm our hospitals with PPE, let alone our schools.”

Verpooten will also be taking safety precautions in her personal life. Because both her and her husband are teachers, and her parents are both at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, they won’t be able to see them until Christmas break. She also has to find a new childcare arrangement, since her parents used to watch their child while they worked.

McNeil said that the staff members at the outlets he advises will be expected to use their own resources to report on the news because they can’t share equipment.

We’re not, as a nation, prepared to arm our hospitals with PPE, let alone our schools

Nichols said that while she doesn’t have to return to the classroom yet, she speaks with advisers and teachers across the country every day who do, and she feels for them.

“It’s been eye opening and it’s something that fills me with so much heartbreak to see how anxious teachers are,” Nichols said.

Budgetary concerns

All three advisers mentioned that ad sales would be harder, not only because they don’t want to send students out to sell ads, but also because their local businesses have been hit hard financially.

McNeil said he’s encouraging his students to spend as little as possible. He said that if their budget does get cut, it won’t be because the administration believes journalism is less important, but because they have to cut everyone proportionately.

However, Nichols said that administrators across the country might use COVID-19 as an excuse to take a class down to a club, or to cut journalism programs altogether.

Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center, said that while it’s too early to tell, there have been rumblings that journalism programs—and by default, advisers— will get cut as a casualty of tighter budgets. But he said that schools’ plans are too “gelatinous” for student media to predict what will happen.

“School boards are just now confronting the fact that…schools — like all [government] agencies — are going to need to tighten their belts,” Hiestand said in an email. “I can see student media, music/art programs — all the usual suspects — being targeted to balance 2020-21 budgets as that reality sets in, but it’s still early enough that those decisions have not been made.”

If you are concerned about your journalism program’s finances, check out SPLC’s Student Media Financial Survival Guide.

We’re not handling it well. None of us are

Nichols also says journalism educators have to give themselves and their students a break. She said that things might not run as smoothly as planned, and the newspaper or yearbook might not be the best, but the point is to focus on being as helpful to students as possible.

“We’re not handling it well. None of us are. It’s been really hard. There’s no right answer right now,” Verpooten said. “Whether you’re going back in person or online, there’s no perfect solution, so we’re all just trying our best.”

CORRECTION: Whitney High School is located in Placer County, California. Our story had listed the wrong county. In addition, the story and a link have also been updated to reflect the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Placer County as of Aug. 21, 2020.

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