Last week, Amherst Regional High School’s student newspaper, The Graphic, published its final issue of the year, devoting much of its space to student reflections about the COVID-19 pandemic. The entire issue was coordinated remotely with nearly all posts dating to after students were sent home on March 13, for the remainder of the school year, in response to the pandemic.
The issue features 10 stories about the pandemic, all written last week, and all highlighting the pandemic as seen through student eyes. Most reflect the sudden shock of the disruption and change in local life and a hopeful anticipation of things returning to “normal”.
Owen Toal’s feature focuses on Joseph “Cayoni” Johns (92), a D-Day veteran and resident of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Johns died of COVID-19 in April, one of 77 residents and staff at the Soldiers’ Home to succumb to a horrific outbreak there. Almost a year earlier, Toal had arranged to meet Johns after reading about him in an article about the 75th anniversary of D-Day in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Toal, who thinks of himself as a self-taught World War II historian, writes about Johns’ account of being a teenage soldier participating in the invasion of Normandy, the horror of the war, and his story of survival.
Cenai Collins’ lead news piece reports on the responses of several people in the ARHS community to the pandemic and the school shutdown. The piece was written just days before school closed and was edited the week after, when few had a good idea of the scope of the crisis to come. Graphic advisor Sara Barber-Just notes that it is really interesting to read again months later.
Sophie Acker’s opinion piece explores how the pandemic has laid bare the “persistent and devastating racial inequality” in America, pointing out how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black Americans.
The Quarantine Diaries
The issue also features seven diary entries from ARHS seniors Tabor Bowman, Cenai Collins, Chang Jin, Veronica Lashway, Justin Masteralexis, Leah Wilson, and one anonymous writer. All of the diary entries focus on what it has been like to be home and out of school and tell a bit about what the students have been doing to fill the time and what is currently on their mind. They reflect a widely felt lament of missing “normality” and missing so many of the highlights of senior year. They recount the way that they have kept busy and that has included a lot of TikTok production and viewing. For most, it has been hard to shift from the highly social atmosphere of the high school to social isolation at home.
Leah Wilson notes: “What I miss most about my life before is my community and being able to see my friends everyday, going out to eat, and having freedom.”
Several writers reflect on how the pandemic has led them to a greater appreciation of the people in their lives, especially family. Justin Masteralexis wrote:
“Despite these fears, everyone also seems closer. I have spent more time with my brother and sister than ever before, and I feel more connected to the rest of my family, too. I think that was something that I took for granted. That human connection has changed my home. We eat every dinner now as a family and we haven’t done that in years, because everyone was always busy. It is the best part of my day. I love sitting down with them and talking over the great food we make. Even though we don’t really ask “what did everyone do today” (since we all know!), we still find ways to make interesting conversations and to connect deeply with the people we love the most.”
Few of these seniors wrote much about wrapping up their school work. But Cenai Collins expressed gratitude to his teachers for continuing to teach, saying: “ I like how all of my teachers have adjusted well to this and how they have set schedules for due dates, classroom meets, and new assignments. Each one of my teachers I think has done a really good job of staying organized during this hectic time. “
And one writer reminds us that for many, the pandemic has produced hardship and anxiety. Anonymous writes that they have really struggled with how life has changed during the pandemic.
“My life during the pandemic has been overwhelming, because of social distancing and living in a state that has among the highest percentage of COVID-19 deaths… Also, my mother tested positive for the virus. Since then, I haven’t been with her. I only see her when I drop off meals or groceries at her door. I can’t hug her, and I only talk to her through the glass door. It feels like hell not being able to help my mom.
“I’m scared to go anywhere because I’m afraid of catching the virus. And I know and care for a lot of elderly people.
“Living during this pandemic has been awful. I know there will be a ‘better day’; it still feels too far away.”
A Challenge for Student Journalists
With the sudden closing of school on March 13, The Graphic staff and Barber-Just had to adjust quickly and invent a process for putting out the paper remotely.
Prior to putting out the COVID-19 issue, The Graphic staff published 19 news, sports, and club stories, on March 20, during students’ first week in quarantine, transitioning smoothly to complete from home, work that had begun before the pandemic arrived in Amherst. Those stories can be found here.
Barber-Just said that since students In Journalistic Writing courses produce all the writing for The Graphic (while an after-school production crew lays out the stories for print and online), she decided to go “online only” during school closure. She added, “Though we left the building, we continued with regular journalism assignments. I hosted weekly Google Meets where we could discuss the news, course readings, and films, and my students worked together to generate ideas for writing. Once pieces for publication were finished, revised, and copy-edited, I posted the articles on our WordPress site myself, rather than trying to organize a remote crew to do it.”
The sudden closing of school and the impact of the pandemic on student lives seemed like an obvious and necessary focus for the last paper of the year and Barber-Just quickly came up with a framework to help students get organized. She notes, “I saw a really moving video diary on the New York Times website about a mom in the Bronx with six kids, a dog, and a partner living in quarantine.
“My students and I watched it and read some other sample diaries or reports, and I generated a graphic organizer with lots of prompts they could write to or answer to develop their own diaries!”
Barber-Just reported that she has received a lot of appreciative feedback from staff and students who read the diaries.