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The School Has Left The Building: The Making Of A Pandemic Yearbook


This strange, challenging pandemic school year is coming to an end, but not without delivering a final challenge to yearbook editors. How exactly do you make a high school yearbook when your school year was mostly remote? Cole del Charco from North Carolina Public Radio put that question to two graduating yearbook editors.

COLE DEL CHARCO, BYLINE: Ellie McCutchen had her work cut out for her this year.

ELLIE MCCUTCHEN: Senior prank didn't happen. Our winter dance didn't happen. Just - things didn't happen.

DEL CHARCO: McCutchen is a yearbook editor and senior class president at the Early College of Forsyth in Winston-Salem. She says even school picture day was turned upside down. It happened in December before the school started offering in-person classes again. McCutchen's co-editor, senior Andrew Plattel, says that was a problem.

ANDREW PLATTEL: I found that about 19.5% of our school did not take a picture.

DEL CHARCO: They set out to collect as many student photos as possible. That meant using old photos from previous years or, in some cases, asking students to take new ones and send them in, which didn't always work out.

PLATTEL: One of them ended up being really zoomed in on the face and not fitting in with the rest of, like, the shoulder-up portrait style.

DEL CHARCO: McCutchen also got permission to use a bunch of pictures through social media.

MCCUTCHEN: And then I would - like, really looked up people's Instagrams and, like, would find a photo. And then I would send that photo to them and be like, hello. I'm Ellie. I'm in the yearbook. Can I please use this photo (laughter)? And most of the time, they would respond and be like, sure.

DEL CHARCO: But there were still students they couldn't get any pictures for. McCutchen and Plattel decided to turn those missing pictures into empty tiles from a Zoom class - like when someone leaves their video off, the mute button on, and just their name shows across the screen.

MCCUTCHEN: I think it makes the best of the situation because it would be weird even if it was just, like, a blank square, so might as well put something in it to make it a little comical.

DEL CHARCO: And because no one knew if students would actually get a chance to sign each other's yearbooks, they included fewer pages for signatures. McCutchen and Plattel also wrestled with the bigger picture - how to portray such an awful school year.

MCCUTCHEN: Our year was Zoom, and we didn't want our book to be, like, that depressing, so we were like, let's take a more journalistic approach and try to, like, dive more into our student body away from school.

DEL CHARCO: They made spreads about pandemic baking, students who worked after-school jobs and how teachers were adapting to remote learning. And there were two whole pages dedicated to this year's class pets.

MCCUTCHEN: And my dog will bark exactly when I unmute myself to say something or I'm trying to present. But they've kind of become our new classmates in a way, which has been interesting to say the least.

PLATTEL: Yeah. And I feel like a lot of us - like, after we get off a Zoom call, I feel like we all just, like, slam our laptops shut and then just, like, go lay with our dog or, like, our cat or something, you know?

DEL CHARCO: Yearbook teacher Ted Barton is proud of his students and the yearbook they put together against the odds.

TED BARTON: I don't see the book so much as - what I see just attributes to the people that they've become. They've become these practical - resilience, intelligence - people - and ingenious.

DEL CHARCO: In the end, the seniors did get a chance to sign each other's yearbooks at their outdoor graduation rehearsal in May.

For NPR News, I'm Cole del Charco in Durham.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "SWAYED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cole del Charco
Cole del Charco is WUNC's Fletcher Fellow for education policy reporting. He grew up in Hickory, North Carolina, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a B.A. from the School of Media and Journalism and spent his first year out of college working with WFAE, Charlotte's NPR member station. Cole loves pine trees, sunny days and the mountains of North Carolina.