In the newsroom of the Daily Tar Heel — the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — seniors Anna Pogarcic and Paige Masten were among about half-dozen student editors gathered Sunday evening to put together the next day’s newspaper, which included an editorial excoriating the university for how it has handled the return of in-person classes.

When Masten, the paper’s opinion editor, went to lay out the piece, the online headline she’d written wouldn’t fit. But there was a pointed message she wanted to convey.

She called out to Pogarcic, the paper’s editor in chief: “Anna, can I use ‘clusterf‐‐--’ in a headline?”

The headline was fitting, in part because of the wordplay, Pogarcic told The Washington Post. Clusters of coronavirus cases had popped up on campus since UNC started in-person classes last week, becoming one of the largest schools in the nation to bring students back to campus.

But the headline on the editorial also worked because, Pogarcic said, “It is a mess. And I said, ‘You know what? Go for it. Print news, raise hell.’”

“I felt like I had a responsibility to use it, almost,” Masten said.

Images of the Daily Tar Heel’s profane headline were shared widely online, many lauding the student journalists for not mincing words. The online version of the editorial included a definition for the noun they printed on the page: “Complex and utterly disordered and mismanaged situation.”

The debate over whether schools should resume in-person operations has been one of the pandemic’s thorniest issues. Across the country, many colleges and universities chose to start their school years online, while others announced on a hybrid approach of in-person and online learning.

Washington Post reporter Chelsea Janes details the possible role that children play in spreading coronavirus and how this impacts school reopenings. (The Washington Post)

The Daily Tar Heel’s pointed editorial was an exclamation point on the student newspaper’s coverage of the pandemic’s impact on the university and local community, a pandemic that has affected the student journalists’ lives as well.

Pogarcic and Masten said they appreciated the mostly positive response they’ve received over the editorial.

“It was humbling to see people recognize the work DTH is doing,” Masten said. “Our reporters and editors have done such incredible work throughout all of this. And I know that absolutely the editorial would not have been possible without their pursuit of truth and accountability, demanding answers and truth and justice from the university.”

Pogarcic pointed to the paper’s efforts to carefully chronicle the pandemic’s effect on the university and its local community. She cited an explainer, published Monday, on the university’s covid-19 dashboard, and to ongoing coverage of campus workers’ fears about returning to campus and demands that the university address those concerns.

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

“This is basically our full time job to serve our community and readers and hold the University accountable,” she said. “It came to a point where it just felt something needed to be said … the words we would typically use were not enough.”

The editorial itself detailed grievances with the university, questioning its decision to move forward with in-person instruction.

“We’re only a week into the semester and four covid-19 clusters have already surfaced on and around campus,” the editorial read. It said the university’s leadership “should have expected students, many of whom are now living on their own for the first time, to be reckless. Reports of parties throughout the weekend come as no surprise. Though these students are not faultless, it was the University’s responsibility to disincentivize such gatherings by reconsidering its plans to operate in-person earlier on.”

Hours after the editorial published, the University announced Monday a reversal to move to all-remote learning, starting Wednesday. School officials announced the change after testing showed rapid spread of the virus — 177 cases of covid-19 were confirmed among students, out of hundreds of tests.

Masten, who wrote the editorial, told The Washington Post she began writing it on Friday after reports emerged of the first clusters of cases on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus.

“I knew how big of an issue this was because people on our campus — students, faculty, graduate student workers, student activists, essential workers — have been fighting for the university to go all remote since March. They knew something like this would happen,” Masten said. “I knew that we had to speak out on it.”

Pogarcic said she did not expect the editorial to resonate the way it did, but said the response may reflect concerns students and the university community have been expressing for months.

“People’s lives are at risk, our lives are at risk. We’re students — we work and go to campus. It just was reaching a boiling point,” she said. “We’ve been writing about and trying to raise the alarm about this for weeks. It took us using that word to get people to look and pay attention.”

The pandemic changed how the student newspaper operated, too. Since returning to campus, Pogarcic said the newsroom desks were spaced out, there is hand sanitizer throughout the room, and a thermometer to check staff members’ temperatures. Only a few staff editors and assistant editors are working in-person — normally about 20 journalists may be in the newsroom at a time — and no one would be required to come in if they feel unsafe.

“I’m a senior, I’ve been on staff for four years, and by far this is the strangest year I’ve ever seen,” she said.

The student journalists at the Daily Tar Heel received an outpouring of support throughout the day in response to the editorial and to their ongoing coverage of the pandemic’s impact. Pogarcic said the paper received $4,000 in donations on Monday, including recurring donations and donations on Venmo, as people offered to pay for some pizza or coffee to sustain the hard-working staff.

“I appreciated seeing that today, but I kind of wished we had seen this energy before. The headline may have been different, but the content hasn’t been different from what we’ve been working on,” Pogarcic said.