August 27, 2020

Since the coronavirus began to spread in the United States, journalists covering K-12 education have been on the front lines, following the zigzagging story of school closures and how local and state officials are responding to the pandemic.

“This is the most important story in the country right now,” said Kenya Hunter, who covers education for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Virginia. “This isn’t just about schools being opened. What are parents going to do? There are some people who can’t work virtually — what are they going to do?”

Several education reporters spoke to Poynter about what it’s like to cover the beat at a time when schools are preparing for a new academic year and, in many cases, have already begun. As children, parents and educators grapple with their new reality, so do these reporters tasked with questioning and writing about each development. And with that comes new and unique challenges: How do you cover a beat when you can’t physically be there? Will schools restrict access once the pandemic ends? How do you cover a story that’s changing fast? And can solid coverage help regain trust at the local level?

“It’s crazy, and it’s changing every single day,” said Shelby Webb, a K-12 education reporter for the Houston Chronicle. “Between what local school districts are doing, state mandates, what the feds are saying … I could report a story and turn it in on Wednesday, and by Thursday morning it could be totally irrelevant because there’s been new guidance put out, or someone made a change, or a lawsuit made its way through the court system.”

Webb has been at the Chronicle for four years and has covered education for even longer. She said she recently received public records she had requested from a local school district back in April. It’s a much longer waiting period than usual because of relaxed policies due to the coronavirus.

Hunter, who began working for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in April, said her greatest obstacle at work is being unable to meet people inside schools to understand, on a personal level, how the pandemic is affecting them.

“I think this is a really important time to be an education reporter. I’m able to help people understand how schools are so important to the economy, which is something I didn’t know,” she said. “I’m learning along with everyone else. My favorite part is learning about the school districts, learning about how schools are in general. So many people think of the ed beat as the beginner beat. But honestly, there are so many skills I wish I had prior to this.”

Finding sources in this pandemic has also been a challenge for TyLisa C. Johnson, an education reporter for PublicSource, a nonprofit digital-first news organization in Pittsburgh. She has been in her current job since May and is new to the city. 

“What do you do when you can’t go to a place and meet up with people that are all interested in this one thing that you’re interested in covering? You have to find other places where they are now congregating,” she said. “I think because of that it feels so disjointed. People are congregating everywhere online. It’s Instagram, it’s Twitter, it’s Meetup, it’s neighborhood apps.”

TyLisa C. Johnson, a reporter for PublicSource. (Photo credit: Ryan Loew of PublicSource)

Johnson’s stories have covered the anxieties of Pittsburgh Public Schools as they return to work and COVID-19 relief for Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools, which are public charter schools that deliver instruction over the Internet or by some other electronic means. The digital journalist noted that, once she finds the people she needs for a story, they’re eager to speak to her. 

“This is at the forefront of everybody’s minds,” Johnson added. “There’s nothing else that parents are thinking about, that teachers are thinking about, that students are thinking about.”

Keung Hui, a longtime education reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, worries about the level of access that will be afforded to him and other journalists by local officials once life gets back to as close to normal as before the pandemic.

“In order to be able to do an effective job, you have to be able to communicate to the readers what’s going on. You have to have access,” he said. “I don’t want a situation where all the education coverage is stuff that the school districts try to package as what they want it to look like. We have to be able to be there ourselves, to see what’s going on.”

As local officials struggled with their plans for schools, this summer became one of the busiest in years for Hui. The veteran reporter said he usually spreads out about 2 1/2 weeks of vacation over the season, but decided to take only one week off this year — at home. Last week was also hectic for Hui because it was the start of classes for the Wake County School System, which is his primary beat. He also covers statewide education issues.

Keung Hui, far right, interviews Sky Grimmett on Aug. 17, for the first day of school as part of a story for the News & Observer. Hui is a longtime reporter for the newspaper and was working with colleague Ethan Hyman. (Photo credit: Juliette Grimmett)

“In the same way that school districts and superintendents, parents, are navigating new territory, so too are journalists who are covering that,” said Joe McLean, who has been covering education as a reporter for television station WJXT Channel 4 in Jacksonville, Florida. He said two other colleagues, digital reporter Travis Gibson and investigative reporter Kelly Wiley, have also been on the beat. Like Hui, McLean said gaining access from school districts to do his job has been difficult.

“It’s many more Zoom interviews. It’s a lot of dealing with school districts and school administrators who are always restricting access to schools out of the inclination that they need to protect the students,” McLean said. “I think it’s been even more difficult to get cooperation with school districts in this new environment because everyone is even more on edge and sensitive to keeping people protected.”

Natalia Alamdari, who reports on education for The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, has struggled to get a statewide view on questions like: How many minutes should children spend in online learning? Who gets notified if someone in the school tests positive for coronavirus?

“If you ask the state, they really leave that deciding to the districts,” she said. “All of these decisions are happening at that local level. Delaware is a small state, but we have way more school districts than you would expect.”

Alamdari and a few other reporters who spoke to Poynter said their communities have been a lot more interested in their education stories.

“I often feel like readership isn’t necessarily as high as other beats at my paper, but lately people need that information so they’re coming to us for it,” Alamdari said.

McLean is proud of what he does, but admitted that journalism has been a tough industry to be a part of over the last few years due to a growing distrust of news organizations in general. 

“One positive that I’ve seen is the trust in local news organizations is, in a way, flourishing with teachers and parents sending stuff to us. We’ve been getting messages, tips. It’s exploded — I’m of course referring to the education beat,” the TV reporter noted. “I think it demonstrates a little bit of rebuilding of trust in giving us local journalists an opportunity to prove our integrity, our responsibility, trustworthiness, and thoroughness in reporting of these public institutions.”

As demanding as these past few months have been, these reporters remain committed to the work of informing their communities during this difficult time.

“I don’t want to fail our audience. I don’t want to fail these families,” Johnson said. “I want to make sure these stories are being told.”

Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a very tired mom. Amaris can be reached at acastillo@poynter.org or on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
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