5 Back-To-School Stories College Newspapers Should Do As COVID-19 Rises Again

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“Welcome to Journalism 221! I’ll be your professor this semester. Let’s recap the university’s safety rules regarding COVID-19…”

With many colleges and universities getting back into gear this week (We’re off for at least a couple more weeks, but I know a lot of folks are already strapping on masks and wading back into classrooms.), here are five potential story ideas for student newspapers:

RECAP THE RULES: This is a basic one that I’m sure most folks have thought of, particularly given the rise of the Delta Variant. (Honestly, it sounds like it should be a lousy movie sequel, brought to you from the people who turned “Sharknado” into a cottage industry… “This fall, get ready for ‘COVID-19, Episode II: The Delta Variant!’…“)

Still, the things that are going to be important to hit on will be the basics, such as:

  • Will move-in procedures¬† for residence halls/dorms change in any meaningful way for people this year?
  • What are the rules that govern mask wearing on campus, both inside of buildings and outside of them?
  • What are clubs, groups and organizations allowed to do or not do in terms of gathering and recruiting? For folks with a lot of clubs, a “student org fair” could be a super-spreader event that the administrators want to cancel. For folks with a strong Greek system, fraternity and sorority chapters tend to have rush near the front of school, so there’s a lot of social events. Who sets the rules and what are they?
  • What are testing procedures for COVID on campus and follow-up precautions in case of positive tests?
  • Are classes being given only in person, only online or in a hybrid/whatever situation? Do students still have “opt-out to online” options or not?
  • What are professors building in terms of “back up” for students who have the illness or have to quarantine after a close contact?

There are dozens of other questions, so consider having a think-tank kind of session with your staff and have someone write them down as you think of them to see how many stories could develop.

LANDLORD LIFE: Complaining about landlords who rent to college students is as common of an occurrence as complaining about tuition hikes and the lack of decent parking. This time around, however, there are more things to consider regarding landlords than if they’re gouging students or if they still haven’t located the source of that smell in the basement:

  • Rental availability: When I was in school 119 years ago, we had to sign next year’s lease for our August move-in date in early January. Students now tell me that around here, they get about three weeks of living in the property before landlords either have them sign up for year two or start showing the property. Given the limitations associated with the 2020-21 school year (isolation protocols, distance learning etc.), it might be a good time to check in with some big and small rental folks in your area to see how things are proceeding for their rentals.
  • Eviction moratoriums: When the Feds cracked down on evictions during the pandemic, most news stories focused on the poor and underprivileged people in big cities who couldn’t make rent during the shutdown period. College students were also renters, so the same rules applied to what could or couldn’t be done to them in regard to evictions. Thus, it might be interesting to see how this affected local landlords and if there are concerns regarding back rent that might never get covered.
  • Bankrupt businesses: Not every rental business is a giant monolith of towers of steel and glass, owned by a hedge fund and operated by a landlord who swims around in a Scrooge McDuck vault of money every night. The “mom-and-pop” rental folks who own a few beat-up houses or who have one small building also tend to populate the landscape of college rentals. Check to see how many of these either didn’t make it due to revenue loss or how many just called it quits, selling off their properties with a raging housing market.

CHECK THE PLAYERS ON YOUR SCORECARD: Old-time baseball vendors used to hawk programs by proclaiming, “You can’t tell who the players are without your scorecard!” (This was probably no more true than for the Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals series, after the teams shipped off a collective 17 players to other teams as part of a trading deadline fire sale. That represents about one-third of the players the teams would collectively carry.) The point here is that after about 18 months of isolation, semi-isolation and general lack of daily connectivity to the campus for most folks, it might be worth seeing who is still on campus and who is gone?

  • Any top-level administrators or high-level athletic coaches decide to go elsewhere or retire?
  • How many professors have called it a day? Any seriously senior-level folks decide to say, “Screw it. I’m not learning Canvas (or BlackBoard or D2L or whatever). I probably should have retired two years ago.” or are folks hanging on? A data check of retirements and resignations comparing the past year to the previous five or ten might be a good idea.
  • How many of the “legends” of campus have left? The cool custodian, the lunch server who always asked “How you doin’?” or the librarian who looked like they were installed when the library was built in 1875 might be gone. Also, think of other folks that make stuff happen on a day-to-day basis that might have been transferred, quit or retired?
  • Death. I know. It’s not a fun one to think about, but sometimes leaving a university isn’t an issue of choice. Check to see if the school has had any students, faculty, staff or administrators who died since you last checked in on everybody.

YOUR PANDEMIC GRADES… JUST AS GOOD. RIGHT?: I don’t think I’m alone in my doubt whenever university officials told us that the online/hybrid/KODAN Armada/whatever version of teaching was going to be “just as good” or “exactly the same” as what we did in a traditional classroom setting. It reminds me of those giant metal boxes they hang on the bathroom walls at truck stops that say, “If you love “Ralph Lauren’s Polo Black,” you’ll love our Pollos Hermanos scent. Insert $1.50 in quarters and push button C-5!” Although the original wasn’t my favorite, the truck-stop version smelled like sour milk and cat urine, so, no, it wasn’t “just as good.”

Someone, somewhere has to have a sense of what grades looked like over the three pandemic semesters (or two if you only want to count 2020-21) and how they compare with what happened before that. There are always anecdotes from students or teachers, but the data could reveal a few things:

  • How many more drops were there in courses during the pandemic terms as opposed to prior terms? If it was a lot more, find out why. If it wasn’t a lot more, report that as well.
  • How did grades fluctuate for both students AND professors? Students might say their grades were better or worse, but the data can back that up, generally speaking. It might also be interesting to see if you can find out if professors’ grading shifted during this time. Grades might be lower, because students had difficulty with life as well as the new environment. They might be higher because traditionally hard-ass professors decided to start giving out more A’s and B’s because of the difficulties.

ATHLETIC ATROPHY: I know a number of our sports had cancellations last year or severely diminished seasons. This is particularly true for sports that have a smaller budget, receive less attention or generally aren’t the kinds you’d see on TV outside of ESPN:8 The Ocho. With that in mind, it might be interesting to dig into the sports area to see how the teams are getting along at brushing off the rust, hitting the workout circuit and generally getting ready for another season

For some teams, it might be great, as it’s a time to let the nagging injuries heal that don’t get a chance to do so under normal circumstances. For others, it might be risky with the idea of muscular atrophy, bad eating/exercise habits setting in or a general loss of connection to the sport.

Hope these help or at least jump-start some ideas for future stories!

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