High School Journalists Write History's "First Draft" On Pandemic

Their schools are closed. See how these students are continuing to cover what could be the biggest story of their generation.

Schools around the world are closed, extra-curricular activities cancelled for the year. But some student journalists are refusing to sit home and watch coverage of the coronavirus pandemic -- they're covering it themselves.

"I didn't think when I started journalism three years ago that I would be stuck at home from school writing about history we will be talking about when I grow up," high school senior Sam Shelenberger told The Quill Magazine. "I never expected that I would be writing the first draft of history."

Sam Shelenberger (R) is editor-in-chief of the Saegertown High School Panther Paw (with staffer Brennan McWright).The Panther Press

Shelenberger is the editor-in-chief of the Saegertown (PA) High School newspaper, the Panther Press Panther Paw. He and advisor Stacey Hetrick have marshaled their 25-person staff of student reporters (plus some alumni home from college) to continue to publish daily stories online, even though their school is shut down and everyone in the state has been ordered to stay at home. They also put out a regular printed version, since a third of the people in their small northeast PA town don't have internet access.

Saegertown (PA) High School's Panther Paw online newspaper.

There's plenty to cover. For example, the area's prime industry is tool and die manufacturing, so many businesses are running at full capacity helping to make medical equipment. The students's special edition Saegertown Shutdown tells those and other pandemic stories. "They are reaching out to each other and saying, 'What we're doing here is important. Get on board.'" Hetrick told The Quill. The students' stories are even being picked up for publication by the nearby Meadville Tribune newspaper.

Student publications let everyone share disappointments too, like cancelled sports seasons, proms and commencement ceremonies.Clark Central HS (Athens, GA) Odyssey website

The Saegertown students aren't alone. Students at Cawtawba Ridge High School in Fort Mill, South Carolina, are producing a daily student-run broadcast, CRN-TV, from home. Advisor Karin McKemey always tells her students they're not the story, but this is different. "They are the story. This is a chance to really document history." Student journalist Paige Bell says getting interviews is the hardest part of being a reporter in a pandemic. "I'm like, 'Can you please just meet me out, anywhere, even in the middle of the road?'"

CRN-TV has features like "Your Daily Dose of Dee" with messages like "Hey, we miss you!" from Principal Dee Christopher.CRN-TV/YouTube

The Cawtawba Ridge students have done everything from producing an online Virtual Spirit Week, to debunking social media myths about COVID-19, and even organizing something called "Friday Feels" where students can share positive messages on CRN-TV's YouTube channel.

There's plenty of room for humor in the student run publications as students at the McCallum High School Shield (Austin, TX) website demonstrate. Trust me, watching this this will make you smile:

Leslie Dennis, Director of the Southern Interscholastic Press Association told The Quill she's impressed with the depth of coverage. "Student journalists have not stopped as their classrooms have been shuttered and continue to cover how COVID-19 is affecting their community and peers from a variety of angles," she said.

Students are covering issues that are important to their peers with a maturity and insight that might surprise the adults.Coppell High School TX student media website

"As the world is falling apart around you, to see a group of students come together to work together to create something and do such amazing work is the one thing that gives you hope," said Justin Raisner, media adviser for the newsmagazine Highlander and the Scot Scoop website at Carlmont High School in Carlmont, CA. "I really like serving the community in this way," added student editor Audrey Boyce.

We're impressed at the dedication of these young journalists, and their committment to instill a sense of normalcy for their peers during this challenging time. It's on-the-job training that's guaranteed to create an awesome next generation of professional journalists!

How can you start something good?

Thanks to the Quill Magazine, you can check out the work of student journalists at the links below.

McCallum HS (Austin, Texas)

Catawba Ridge HS (Fort Mill, South Carolina)

Thomas Jefferson HS for Science and Technology (Alexandria, Virginia)

Clarke Central HS (Athens, Georgia)

Coppell HS (Coppell, Texas)

Saegertown Jr./Sr. High School (Saegertown, Pennsylvania)

Carlmont High School (Carlmont, California)

On Friday (4/17), join Andy Conte, Director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh as he interviews adviser Stacey Hetrick and Editor in Chief Sam Shelenberger from the Panther Press on the CMI's Facebook page. Click here to learn how to join in.

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