When the ‘world changed,’ a daily student reporting project tackled ‘Pandemic Fall’ at a Colorado liberal arts college--with dedication and inspiration.

Students vs. the pandemic: How a journalism team is chronicling COVID

When the ‘world changed,’ a daily student reporting project tackled ‘Pandemic Fall’ at a Colorado liberal arts college

With her spring semester over, Colorado College senior Arielle Gordon was prepping for an internship reporting for the Collegiate Summer Baseball Network. Her friend and classmate Miriam Brown was readying for a summer doing digital content for a large Memphis hospital.

“Then COVID-19 hit and the world changed,” says Corey Hutchins, an instructor in the private liberal arts college’s newly-created Journalism Institute. “Everyone’s plans were scrapped, everything was cancelled. People were staying home. What now?”

An atmosphere of uncertainty led Journalism Institute Director and Associate Professor of English Steven Hayward to suggest to Hutchins that they apply for a last-minute Summer Faculty Student Collaborative Research grant to put together a robust collaborative reporting project focused on the pandemic’s impact on their college, higher education, and the broader community in Colorado Springs. The two mentioned it to their colleague, Najnin Islam, an assistant professor in the English department, and the ball was rolling.

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“It was a triangle of issues,” Hayward says. “They suddenly were very important, and they were going to become even more urgent in the fall.”

Summer plans up in the air, Gordon and Brown, journalism minors who serve as co-presidents of the independent organization that oversees campus publications, were a natural fit and on board to do it. The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project, a daily inbox newsletter published on Substack, was born.

Since launching in June, the project has surveyed students and staff members, interviewed campus administrators and county health officials, explained the college’s new academic schedule, analyzed public reports, researched the ethics of re-opening, and contextualized how guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control could impact campus life in the fall.
As part of its reporting, members of the project have gotten blood-tested for antibodies and undergone contact-tracing certification.

“Corey keeps the thing on track with the editing,” Hayward says. “It’s been a crash course in how to run a newsletter and do responsible daily journalism all at once— for me as well as the students who are reporting the bulk of the work.”

The project frequently relies on the insight of a Colorado College microbiologist, Phoebe Lostroh, who analyzes public health data and puts it into context. Her weekly forecasts of how the disease is spreading in El Paso County, where Colorado College is located, have been prophetic.

“Phoebe had been doing these forecasts and posting them in comments on her Facebook page,” Hayward says. “It was important to find a wider platform for her work.”

Lostroh, a molecular biology professor who also serves as a program director for the National Science Foundation, was out front early on the “aerosol theory,” and has sometimes been a seemingly lone voice sounding an alarm that the campus’s home county could lose an exemption from state health orders if locals don’t change their behavior.

From their respective home bases in Maryland and a cabin in rural Colorado, Gordon and Brown set to work reporting on what other liberal arts colleges are planning for the fall and how they differ, as well as the preparations of institutions much different than their own, like military academies. They localize the global pandemic with personal stories. In one July newsletter, the students told of two Colorado College alums, one who is working on antiviral treatments in grad school, and another who is a self-described COVID “long-hauler” suffering from the disease. The project has interviewed a professor about what it’s like teaching online while infected, and how members of the campus community are working to combat the virus.

“The pandemic has added new obstacles to the reporting process,” Brown says. “We spend a lot of time on Zoom. People have a lot of questions about what the fall semester will look like on college campuses, so we are trying to find some answers.”

That includes poring through pages of dense studies and guidelines, and breaking them down for people who don’t have time to read them. It means attending the college’s multiple virtual town halls and boiling down the most useful takeaways for those who couldn’t watch.

Such a project could be replicable at colleges or universities elsewhere, Gordon says.

“I think it’s unique to every campus and the campus culture, but it’s definitely something that students can do,” she says, adding they’ve found success with Substack’s free newsletter service.

“It’s something students should consider doing, especially if we remain online into this semester and even beyond,” Gordon says. “Given that we’re all separated and scattered, especially on our campus when the traditional student publications aren’t running because it’s summer, this gives students a reliable source of information, and can hold leaders accountable when decisions are being made, and provide that clarity and more frequent updates than students might otherwise be getting.”

Over the past two months, the project has steadily garnered the trust of readers, says Islam, who is helping oversee it.

“The newsletter’s impact on the college community is evident in the encouraging feedback we have received both from colleagues and students,” she says. “While we remain focused on our campus and the local community, much of the work done as part of this project has also facilitated a capacious understanding of how the pandemic continues to shift the contours of higher education in this country.”

Approaching eight weeks of daily newsletters delivered each morning to a growing list of subscribers, the students have sought to point out how their college’s plans for “Pandemic Fall” differ from other institutions. They’ve noted how other colleges are testing students upon return, and reported on their own college’s limited testing plans. They’ve reported what other institutions are doing about tuition, and have parsed their own school’s approach to finances.

Colorado College is on a highly unique “block plan” system — students take just one class at a time for three-and-a-half weeks, three hours a day. The project has reported how other higher-ed institutions around the country have been asking the CC community for advice, trying to figure out if a block-style schedule might work better in a pandemic than a typical semester.

“Most of them say it’s temporary,” Hayward says about other schools and a block-plan switch. “But we’ll see. Students love the block plan, and it might be harder than institutions think to go back to their old way of doing things.”

As for the two student journalists busy at work each day on a summer reporting project neither of them expected to take on before the virus hit, Islam says, “they’ve done an exceptional job of reporting on complicated issues in accessible ways.”

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