Being a teenager is already stressful. Being a teenager during a global pandemic is beyond daunting. And though many schools are closing across the U.S., for who knows how long, millions of students are finding their way and learning to build a new “normal” from home.
Amidst all the chaos and confusion, one group of teens has managed to remain focused on their mission — fact-checking.
The MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network is a group of dozens of teens fact-checking misinformation and disinformation they find on their social media feeds. These teens have continued their fact-checking work despite unprecedented challenges — school closures, classes moving online, SAT testing, grades, final exams and even delayed graduations.
The TFCN has reported on whether you can catch coronavirus by touching money (our rating: needs context), if China is seeking approval to kill patients with the virus (our rating: not legit), if wearing a mask will protect you from COVID-19 as many videos on TikTok claimed, and the teens even debunked a claim that weed can kill coronavirus.
Still, the changes to these teens’ lives are sobering. We checked in with them during our regular Wednesday “office hours” chat over Google Hangouts to see how they were doing and, after hearing what they’re going through, we asked them to share some of their personal stories. They appear, lightly edited, below.
16 years old, high school junior
~2 months with TFCN
My school district’s superintendent canceled school for a month and we don’t return to school until mid-April. My school was able to easily transition to online classes because many teachers already use several online learning platforms.
What’s annoying is that technically assignments are not required according to the Virginia Department of Education because of internet access issues. The work that’s assigned is supposed to be review content, stuff we’ve already been learning.
However, that is not the case for me.
Three out of my seven classes are teaching new content and they are all Advanced Placement classes, as the College Board says exams will still happen. Our quarter grades are not being updated during the closure, but when we get back our grades will be updated to account for the work we’ve done during the quarantine.
I have just as much work now as I did when I was in school, but it seems like more work because everything is being assigned at once from all my teachers. The challenge is structuring your day to make sure you’re getting enough done each day.
I’m also home with my three younger siblings and taking care of two of them takes up a lot of the time I’m not using to do homework. My little brothers are in elementary school and getting them into a routine is difficult; they don’t understand that they still need to do school even though they’re home. My sister and I are trying to work something out because they each have three packets of homework to do. My sister also has work from her middle school classes, but that’s entirely review for her.
Our school lends Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots to students for the school year so access and equity are less of a concern. However, what I’ve been struggling with is the fact that all my city libraries are closed, which is difficult because I rarely have a moment of quiet in my home. I need the library to study for the SAT, but this quarantine will be a lot harder to get through without a quiet place within easy access.
I’m one of nine editors for my school newspaper and I’ve been coordinating efforts to continue publishing online content. I maintain contact with the rest of the 40-member staff through Remind texts and our advisors send us daily emails to stay on track. It’s definitely a challenge since we’re no longer together so brainstorming sessions aren’t as collaborative. A lot of staff members have been having trouble coming up with stories since interviews can only be online and almost all the events in our city are canceled.
I’m encouraging them to document their experiences with the quarantine and investigate how Coronavirus affects their community. We also have some interesting movie reviews, stories about youth voting in the 2020 election and articles explaining how to be environmentally conscious in the works as well.
17 years old, high school senior
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
~1 year with TFCN
Tik Tok: thea.barr
Being a senior, this part of the year is already really scary, not knowing where you’ll be living in 6 months. Add on the stress of not knowing if you’ll ever go back to school, see some of your friends, or get to walk across the stage, it’s a whole other monster.
My school district let out before the statewide order and will stay out at least a week past that, but there’s a lot up in the air, from the district level and individual teachers. Each student and faculty member is under different stress levels, and it feels very tedious. We should be relaxed — I’m currently on teacher work days/spring break — but the stress of what will happen, if we’ll get to experience those iconic senior moments and if classes and grades will be OK isn’t letting that happen.
I know my teachers are stressing out about how to get all of the information to us by the end of the year, or earlier in the case of AP classes. I’ve already heard that three of my classes will combine units/tests, which decreases the quality of our education, and all in all disruptions like these, while unavoidable in a situation like this, are just hard to manage.
I struggle with chronic health issues as well, which means that despite having time off to rest being nice, I know whatever time we do have left in the classroom will be stressful, rushed, and chaotic — hard to manage if you have health issues, family responsibilities or any other outlying factor.
Like some of my peers, I’m also dual-enrolled at the local university, so it’s hard managing different versions of classes — even just within my high school, as well — and different schedules that are changing constantly. Teachers are trying to figure out the best solution for themselves, while us students are managing seven or eight of those solutions and trying to keep them all straight.
My district is considering adding extra minutes onto the school day or days at the end of the year to make up for this time — both could possibly cause problems, especially if one might have already committed to a summer job, or have after-school jobs or responsibilities that will be affected by this time.
But no one, here or across the world, can really plan for any of that, since we don’t know what life will be like in 2-4 weeks.
16 years old, high school junior
Charlotte, North Carolina
~9 months with TFCN
Originally, my district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, planned on having school for three days this week and then moving spring break to the rest of this week and next week to allow for teachers to transition classes online. This was voted on as the best solution to help ease the transition for the 150,000+ students, teachers and parents in our district.
This, however, was overturned by the governor’s executive order.
My situation is different from many in my district as I am dual-enrolled, so I am taking high school and community college classes. Since our school follows the community college, we already had our spring break, though it is now extended to the end of this week.
The plan is for our college classes to transition online starting next week, while our high school classes transitioned online this week until an undetermined date. Overall, our school district has done a wonderful job of helping make sure that this transition is not stressful. They have worked very hard to make sure that the resources needed for all students are present and available. Each school has been working to ensure that all students above 4th grade have access to Chromebooks and the internet to complete online assignments.
For the current two weeks, our district has made it clear that assignments will not be graded and will not introduce new assignments until the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction gives further details on how to proceed with online learning.
Our district has also worked to ensure that students who relied on school for their meals are still able to obtain them by setting up breakfast and lunch pick-up areas at certain schools throughout the district.
The community has also helped make sure resources are available; Spectrum is offering free internet access to households with students for two months and local companies are also offering free meals to students in need.
Within my community, I am involved with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council — the official youth council for the city, county and school district — so I have helped to spread the word of these changes to many of my peers. We are also working to create a document of all the updates and resources available to students to better inform them of what’s going on. Also, the governor put in an executive order requiring that all restaurants serve customers only through take-out, no dine-in for the time being.
17 years old, high school junior
~3 months with TFCN
Florida’s governor has just canceled face-to-face school until April 15, so now we are transferring to virtual school for a month. I left all my materials in my locker so I don’t know how that’s gonna work out.
Our governor has also made us exempt from all end-of-course exams and we will be graded based on our final course grade, as if the exam didn’t exist. Parents have the option to hold their child back a year if they want.
CollegeBoard has canceled two SAT dates, including one I was supposed to take in May, and we don’t know when they’ll reschedule it yet. My ACT date has also been rescheduled from April 4 to June 13.
As for AP exams, we are going to have less in-school time to prepare for the exams in May. (As if junior year wasn’t stressful enough.)
My job at Chick-fil-A has sent most of the front-of-house staff home, including me, because mass gatherings are no longer allowed and we are strictly working drive-through. Mass at all the churches in my diocese have been indefinitely canceled.
16 years old, high school sophomore
Los Angeles, California
~4 Months with TFCN
COVID-19 has really changed life for everyone in a different way. It’s scary and confusing how quickly things have turned upside down for most. Maybe my family got lucky or we were just prepared thanks to my mom, but it’s really bad for some people. School shutting down, restaurants, places you like to visit, and friends. It’s like someone just pressed the off button.
We keep hearing these new terms like “social distancing” and “shelter in place”. The world is changing and it is a game of tug of war to see who will move first.
Aside from the bad, there is always a silver lining. Now, I can spend much more time with my family, even if it is confined to our house.
My school has just moved to online, a weak and lackluster attempt with too many drawbacks. My school is also thinking about discarding our second-semester grades entirely and only using the first, which would really be unfortunate for juniors.
The news is now saying that our schools will likely be closed until next year. I don’t think I can do that. At first it was fun missing school for a day, then you really see how much you miss the interactions. Friends and updates about our school’s closure seem like the only things that are interesting right now — everything is just kind of hazy. The days seem like they go on forever and there is nothing to pass the time that used to be fun.
It’s really like a situation you would see in a movie and just brush over it when watching. No, this is the reality we live in, and it keeps evolving.
16 years old, high school junior
~3 months with TFCN
Maryland’s superintendent of public schools has canceled schools indefinitely until March 30. As of right now, we are supposed to return to classroom learning on that date. Our county does not have the resources necessary to move to online learning with such short notice.
I was told by my teachers that they were informed that they can’t assign us any graded assignments to do over the break. However, a few have given me optional ones to do.
They also have canceled our spring break, which was the Friday before Easter and the Monday after. This was done in an effort to make up school days missed due to our break.
Churches in my area have canceled church for the next two weeks. My gym and all the restaurants in my area are closed as well. I work for our local minor league baseball team, and because their season has been postponed, I’m out of work for a while.
16 years old, high school junior
~5 months with TFCN
While we were on spring break, our newspaper (The Sidekick at Coppell High School) didn’t produce content. But this week, the editors (there are 12 including me) have been working together to cover updates — like when students can pick up their devices from school, what is happening with AP and IB testing, the May SAT being canceled, etc.
Usually I would be helping to edit and produce content for student life, but since our staff is still on break and we need to inform our audience about the news, we’ve been focusing on COVID-19!
For the next few weeks, while we aren’t entirely sure what is to come, we know that our job descriptions and how we conduct our newspaper will have to change drastically — instead of our usual weekly editor meetings, we’re most likely going to have phone conferences to discuss next steps by next week, and our content production will have to be done entirely at home, online. Our fifth print issue was supposed to come out by April, but our advisor has made the decision to make it entirely online (as a PDF).
This is all pretty new for us but as editors, we are really excited to lead the program, even during this time! Our advisor is constantly checking in with us as well and providing us with updates from the school and district.
You can check out some of our coverage on COVID-19 here:
- CISD closing in response to Coronavirus
- Letter From the Editor: Issuing the truth in midst of confusion
- Texas suspends STAAR testing requirements for 2019-20 school year
- Making the best of break
16 years old, high school junior
~6 months with TFCN
I am the editor-in-chief of my school newspaper (The Hawk Talk at Seminole High School). I decided to write a story on the Coronavirus back in February. At the time, the virus was spreading rapidly throughout China and there were very few cases in the United States and other parts of the world. It was predicted that the virus would spread throughout the U.S, but it was not expected that we would end up here.
My deadline for this issue was last week, and as I went over my story, I found that half of the information relayed in it was no longer correct. I didn’t realize how fast this virus took a drastic turn for the worse.
We all thought this spring break would be like our experiences in the past, but it has been quite the contrary. Our week off of school turned into two, and now four. As of right now, we don’t go back to school until April 15, but that could change at any time. On March 30, all Pinellas County schools will be starting online classes.
As for me, I’ve been trying to find a balance. My family has not quarantined themselves, but we have been social distancing. We’ve been to the beach and a few restaurants, but drive-thru only. Six feet apart from others at all times, small groups of less than ten people of course.
I feel like I’m an extra in a dystopian novel, like The Hunger Games or Divergent, stories I immersed myself in a few years ago. None of this feels real, but it is and that’s the terrifying part.
After reading these accounts, you might be interested to learn more about what is happening with MediaWise, The Poynter Institute’s U.S. media literacy program. Like everyone else, we are feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Most of the MediaWise team is home, taking care of relatives and navigating this new world; but at the same time we are working harder than ever before to teach Americans how to sort fact from fiction online.
The amount of misinformation about COVID-19 on social media is astounding. We are doing our part to help people through this crisis by doubling down on our efforts to fact-check all the bad info that is causing panic and fear for a nation that is spending more time online.
As we have been checking in with our programs, one initiative stood out: the MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network. The current 35 actively working TFCN members are fact-checking the coronavirus “information” they’re seeing on social media and publishing their findings on @MediaWise social accounts — primarily Instagram but also TikTok, YouTube and Twitter. We have published more than 330 fact-checks since this initiative began in 2018.
What is happening with TFCN right now is in a word — remarkable. Through the swift leadership of TFCN editor and multimedia reporter Alexa Volland, these teens have managed to continue their fact-checking work despite their unprecedented challenges, as you learned above. They have managed to remain actively engaged in the program, and pivoted quickly to focusing their reporting on fact-checking misinformation related to the coronavirus outbreak.
And while most of America is struggling to transition to remote and virtual work, what is incredible and fortuitous, is TFCN has been virtual all along. The teens are spread across nearly a dozen states. Almost all of them have never met each other and never will — like modern-day pen pals but communicating through Slack, Google Docs and texts.
The fact-checking work they have been producing on COVID-19 is superb and getting better with each story. More than 15 fact-checks have been published so far about this pandemic and we have 28 more in the works for the coming weeks. We are also exploring ways to expand the program as soon as we can. You can support this work by donating here.
In closing, it is worth mentioning that all of the members of TFCN are lucky enough to have internet access at home. Many, many teenagers across America do not. How will they transition to “e-learning” for possibly the rest of this school year? Many schools don’t even have that option or capability. Many teachers don’t even have internet access at home. How will school closings impact those families, education systems and communities?
Think about that when digesting the impact this pandemic will have not just on today, but on this generation for years to come.
Katy Byron is the editor and program manager of Poynter’s MediaWise, a non-profit project teaching millions of Americans how to sort fact from fiction online. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.