Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus pandemic is not over
Letters to the Editor • Opinion
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Yearbook staff members staged an early-morning rescue mission two weeks ago to salvage school computers from the closed Chantilly High School in Virginia. They needed the laptops to finish the book. (Sheri Stern)

Julia Cheng woke that Friday thinking, like always, about the yearbook.

Rumors had filled high school hallways and group chats for days: Fairfax County Public Schools would close because of the novel coronavirus. Cheng, a Chantilly High School senior and yearbook editor in chief, was skeptical. After four years, she knew how much administrators loathed canceling class.

Still, the book wasn’t quite done, print deadlines were approaching, and she couldn’t quash her worry. When Cheng, 18, awoke at 6:42 a.m., she checked her phone first.

Awaiting her were more than 40 texts, all from yearbook staff.

“School closed guys.”

“Oh no!! I had a feeling.”

“Oh my goodness I’m so upset,” texted Vietthao Ho, Cheng’s co-editor, who was waking up five miles away, equally fixated on the yearbook.

It was true: Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had ordered Virginia public schools shut for two weeks, a closure he would later extend through the end of the school year. Cheng and Ho had 10 days to finish 60 pages and deliver them to the printing company. They had no way to access drafts stored on school computers.

“Wat,” messaged one staffer, “are we gonna do now.”

'Documenting history'

It is a challenge confronting high school yearbook staffs throughout the country, now that officials in almost every state have closed schools for weeks or longer. The logistical problems are thorny: Students, many of them facing late-March or early-April deadlines, must produce pages at warp speed from afar, despite lacking crucial school technology, face-to-face editing or, for some, access to the Internet.

The shutdown is forcing more existential questions, too. How do you commemorate a year without spring sports, without prom, without graduation? How do you honor a senior class deprived of most senior-year milestones?

How do you publish a yearbook when half the year went missing?

“Actually, it’s even more important to me than before,” said Madison Bailey, editor in chief of the yearbook for Prince George High School in Prince George, Va. “The book is the only thing [seniors] have left to look forward to, the only spot of happiness.”

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Bailey had to redesign more than a dozen pages after the virus nixed spring traditions, and she lost a third of her staff, who were unable to get online. But she never considered leaving the book unfinished. Editors across the country are taking the same view, according to Sarah Nichols, president of the Journalism Education Association, a national membership group for high school journalism teachers and advisers.

Nichols said she knows of yearbook staffs in at least 40 states that are continuing work. That includes her own students at Whitney High School in Rocklin, Calif., who finalized their pages via Zoom and Google Hangouts in late March.

“They know their role documenting history matters,” Nichols said. “More than ever.”

Cheng and Ho were determined to capture history — but they had to get inside Chantilly High School first.

By the time those texts started flying, all Fairfax County schools were officially closed to students. That meant the computers that housed all of the in-progress pages were locked away in the yearbook office.

After a round of frenzied texting with their yearbook adviser, Mary Kay Downes, the editors in chief came up with a plan. They climbed into their cars and sped toward school, pulling into the parking lot around 8 a.m. Ho arrived without her customary makeup. Cheng was still in her pajamas and slippers.

Downes let the girls inside the building and walked with Cheng and Ho through empty hallways to the yearbook office. They yanked seven laptops away from tangles of wires, snatched up charger cords and grabbed as many page proofs as they could. On their way out, they spotted the snacks: packets of Utz chips, trays of Oreos and large bottles of soda, accrued by yearbook staff in expectation of long, late production nights.

Despite having their colleges shut down, student journalists remain committed to covering the coronavirus outbreak. (Video: The Washington Post)

They also remembered the small dispensers of hand sanitizer Downes likes to keep on each desk in her classroom.

“It’s a pandemic,” Cheng said later. “We grabbed them all.”

'You Should Be Here'

At Prince George High, Bailey knew that taking yearbook production virtual would be challenging, and maybe impossible, for some of the 40 students she oversees.

Several staffers haven’t been heard from since the closure. One student is using her mother’s iPhone hotspot to access the Internet, said yearbook adviser Chris Waugaman, exponentially increasing the family’s data costs. Even Bailey is having connectivity issues: She lives “down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, Virginia,” she said, meaning her service can be rather rocky.

“But you know what, we’re in pretty good shape,” Bailey said last month.

She and her peers forged a new, remote routine: Every morning around 9 a.m., Waugaman sent the staff a “daily briefing” GroupMe message listing targets for the day. In the early afternoon, Waugaman, Bailey and the staff held a Zoom videoconference to check on staffers’ progress.

In between, students laid out pages, rejiggered run-on sentences and tweaked photo captions. Waugaman worked on the book about seven hours a day, he said. Bailey never left her computer long; using a tracking function included in the design program, Waugaman calculated that Bailey has labored over the pages for a total of 395 hours and one minute. Her co-editor in chief, Ashley Thacker, has clocked about 393 hours.

They had a lot to do: The cancellation of spring events, including a military ball, required refashioning wide swaths of the yearbook. Bailey decided to fill 16 suddenly empty pages with three spreads of what she calls “coronavirus content”: a piece tracking the outbreak of the virus in Virginia, an article focused on food distribution and how teachers are shifting classes online, and a story about spring sports teams, whose seasons died in their infancy.

On March 27, Bailey and her team sent their pages to the printer, three days ahead of deadline. They decided to keep the title they’d picked months before: “You Should Be Here.”

Hitting 'submit'

Despite everything, Cheng and Ho said, the Chantilly yearbook looks much the same.

That’s because the book, per tradition, covers the period March to March. Most of their content was finalized well before the closures. The most noticeable casualty of the coronavirus, the editors said, is the traditional yearbook staff group photo.

The girls had planned to take the picture on March 13, the day schools closed. Instead, Cheng and Ho asked their 30 staffers to send in selfies, which they compiled into a collage.

“Not the same thing,” Ho said. “But better than nothing.”

It was one of the final steps in an unorthodox editing process they improvised, through near-constant texts and calls, from their bedrooms.

At school, the staff met almost every day, so the two editors could circle mistakes in red pen and walk across the yearbook office to explain what needed changing. Now, editing happened in Google Drive, often via extremely detailed comments.

“I had to say: ‘In this caption, on the right side of the page, in the second sentence, you have to delete the Oxford comma,’ ” Cheng said.

“We have a policy,” Ho added, “against Oxford commas.”

By the second-to-last weekend in March, Cheng and Ho were finally ready to submit the last 60 pages of the Chantilly yearbook, adding to the 260 they sent to the printer before schools closed. They were confident they could make their 11:59 p.m. deadline on the 23rd. But they faced one last hurdle: The submission could be made only on school computers, using school WiFi.

First, Cheng had to persuade her dad to let her go. Anxious about the virus, he’d basically barred her from leaving the house. He made an exception for the yearbook. On Monday, Cheng drove to the Chantilly High parking lot, logged into the network and — with the doors locked, as she had promised Dad — started filing pages.

Ho drove to the elementary school nearest her house and parked in sight of an empty playground. She sat next to her father, who insisted on accompanying her.

“My dad seems to think he makes us invincible, if he’s there,” Ho said. “Still, it was nice to have him.”

Cheng and Ho do not know how they’re going to deliver them to their classmates. Some cherished traditions they know they’ll have to skip.

There will be no gathering at 5:30 a.m. one morning, near the end of the school year, to await the arrival of a truck packed with cardboard boxes. There will be no unloading party, with staffers teaming up to lift the heavy boxes while snacking on muffins and croissants provided by Downes. There will be no day-long distribution — no sitting at a table for hours, as past editors have done, and handing out their handiwork to eager classmates.

There might not even be yearbooks. Downes checked her email recently to find a troubling notification: The printing plant she’s used for years is closing for 30 days.

In their cars, Cheng and Ho pushed aside uncertainty. They did the only thing they could do. They hit “submit.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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