What is it like to be a high school senior during a pandemic? GBH News took a close-up look with the multiplatform project COVID and the Classroom, which follows three students from the first day of school through graduation. Their stories unfold through personal video diaries, GBH-produced videos, photos and articles. GBH Senior Editor Stephanie Leydon, who is executive producer of the series, reflects on the year.
What distinguishes this series from other projects you’ve worked on?
Stephanie Leydon: I have been a reporter for many years. Usually the nature of reporting is that you go in, you connect with people, you do a story and then you move on to the next one. And depending on the story, you may follow it for a while. But it is rare to be able to really embed in a story and in people's lives as we’ve done with COVID and the Classroom. It's been extraordinarily satisfying.
As a journalist, what did you learn during this project?
Leydon: GBH News is still a young organization. And what we're doing is tapping into its potential to move it to the next level. This project is the first tentpole project for GBH News — a multiplatform, big issue, deep dive into an important topic — covered in an original and distinctive way. I think that it has shown that our newsroom can and will continue to do this kind of work.
The students are so honest and open. How did you set the stage for that?
Leydon: We always kept in mind that these students aren’t just “sources.” They are kids. We were very conscientious and cautious about trying not to overwhelm them. We also thought carefully about what we published. We didn’t use every single video that they sent in. In some instances, if a video had been recorded in a moment that was extremely hard for that student, we chose not to include it or held it until we could create more context around the material. We really like these kids and feel so much empathy for them, but we also kept a distance in order to let their lives unfold in real time.
Was it hard to find the students?
Leydon: We talked to a lot of seniors at the beginning of this project. We were looking for kids who seemed really comfortable and committed. High school age students in general are very comfortable sharing. I suspect that for these three students we are but one platform on which they're telling their stories. They’re constantly sharing what's going on in their lives.
Did anything surprise you during this project?
Leydon: As a reporter, you usually go into a story having pre-reported it a bit and you have a sense of the arc of the narrative. With this one, there were so many unknowns. Seeing what the kids were facing was surprising. They dealt with some extraordinary things — personally and with their families. Anne Laurie lost her father to COVID. Thomas’s school cancelled all sports and Bridget struggled to stay positive. They struggled with the normal stresses of senior year, too — like applying to college and figuring out how to pay for it.
Meet the students and follow their stories: Anne Laurie Pierre is an Everett High senior with her sights set on becoming the first in her family to go to college. Bridget Donovan attends Framingham High, where she loves the excitement and camaraderie of school theater. At Boston Latin, Thomas White hopes for one more year of competition and a spot on a college track team.
A series recap "Class of COVID" will be presented on June 21 at 7:30 pm on GBH 2 and streamed live, followed by a virtual discussion on GBH News Facebook and YouTube channels.