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Student journalists learn to cover their schools when nobody is in them
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Student journalists learn to cover their schools when nobody is in them

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In an ideal world, a student newspaper reflects what is going on within the high school community.

But what if the classrooms are quiet? The playing fields empty? The students siloed in their homes? 

That's been the challenge for local high school newspapers, whose staffs have been meeting — and churning out editions — remotely since last spring, when Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the shutdown of school buildings to stop the spread of the coronavirus. In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, high school students will be the last to return to school buildings. Tentatively, they are to return in late January, but that is subject to change. 

Typically an offshoot of journalism classes, most student newspapers are serious endeavors, covering an array of topics within a school, along with homecoming and club news. While there's still plenty of light reading in today's local high school newspapers, student journalists are also writing stories reflective of this historic time, creating a time capsule of sorts of the 2020-21 school year.

Two local student newspapers, the Dorian Scroll at Mount Tabor High School and Pine Whispers at Reynolds High School, are capturing the essence of this year's school experience, with stories on the impact of COVID-19 on college entrance exams, how some students are staying connected through study groups, what's it like to have COVID-19, how quarantining leads to to more screen time and tips for applying to college.

"We're a good place to go for information," said Emma Hartsoe, one of the editors of the Dorian Scroll. "At this point, administration, the school board don't always tell you what's going on. They use a lot of buzz words. We try to comment on stuff simply about things that are going on with things like sports and reopening."

The weightier stories are blended in with such stories as how to look your best on Zoom, the telecommunications tool that connects students and teachers. The Zephyr, the student newspaper at West Forsyth, has tips on how to cure quarantine boredom (example: listen to a new podcast). Pine Whispers has a story on how the school's well-known a cappella groups practice through Zoom, without the benefit of hearing each other.

These are all stories that would have sounded alien a year ago. 

Matthew Maynard, a junior at Mount Tabor and another editor of the Dorian Scroll, said the staff trades ideas during its monthly brainstorming session, now held on Zoom. 

"We like to find articles that relate to everybody, especially with what's going on with the pandemic," Maynard said.

Gerianne Bartlett is the advisor for the Dorian Scroll, which won top prize in 2019-20 from the N.C. Scholastic Media Association.

She and her staff of 31 students spent part of the summer figuring out how to put out this year's paper, which moved from print to a digital platform. 

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"I think they are definitely cognizant that they're in a unique situation and thinking about how they can turn that into articles and article ideas," she said.

In typical years, there would be a big sports spread, with stories on football and other fall sports. But most sports were suspended for the first few months and have only recently started back up.

The Dorian Scroll, like other student newspapers, is also branching outside of the school building, addressing such topics as the election and the Black Lives Matter movement, which included the participation of hundreds of local high school students during a summer of marches and protests.

One of the big challenges for staff members is reaching outside of their social bubble to include the voices of students from across the school community and to find stories that are representative of the student body, Bartlett said. That can be difficult when no one is on campus.

"A lot of the kids (in the class) are friends so there is a small social circle. Some of the job is going to find kids they don't necessarily know," Bartlett said.

That holds true over at Reynolds High School where Parker Hunt is the advisor for Pine Whispers. 

"Ideally, I'd send students out to talk to people at lunch, but nobody is on campus and it would not be safe to have them go door to door, and unfortunately, social media is a little limiting. My students don't follow everyone on campus and not everyone follows our newspaper's Instagram or Twitter accounts," Hunt said. "So it's hard to reach students we want to reach. Being at a school that is one of the most diverse in the county, we want to represent that diversity in stories we write and people we interview. We've made strides, but we're nowhere where we want to be, and that's been challenging."

Though student journalists and their advisors aren't sure of the reach of their newspapers, they say it can play role in linking a dispersed student body.

"Ideally, we want our paper to be the hub for all our students to experience what Reynolds is like," Hunt said.

Laura Doughton, one of the editors of Pine Whispers, said the paper has filled the role of daily afternoon announcements. The paper's website is updated every few weeks with new stories. And though writing about COVID-19 can get old after awhile, the virus has impacted nearly every facet of their school experience, she said.

Doughton mentioned that with sports starting back up, Pine Whispers can start covering games. But the games won't be the same. Attendance is limited and masks must be worn, opening another line of issues and stories. 

"As much as we try to pull away from writing about Covid," Doughton said, "it's really hard."

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@lisaodonnellWSJ

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