Pandemic disruption through a student’s story

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In March 2021, Genesis Duran was a 16-year-old at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City who had already spent a year learning at home. It was at this point that two Times reporters, Eliza Shapiro, an education reporter at the Metro office, and Gabriela Bhaskar, a photographer, began to document her life. To get a glimpse of the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic to students in the city, they would follow Ms Duran for six months. Ms Shapiro and Ms Bhaskar watched Ms Duran help her younger sister Maia and mother at home in Washington Heights, and watched Ms Duran go through the ups and downs of a future summer of liberation and return to class in the fall in as a senior thinking about graduation. A photo report on Ms Duran’s pandemic experience was posted online and in print last month. During the interviews, Ms. Shapiro and Ms. Bhaskar reflected on their reporting. Their responses have been edited and condensed.

What kind of editorial conversations did you have prior to your reporting? Were there certain qualifications in a student’s experience that you were looking for?

ELIZA SHAPIRO: With one year of the schools closing, around the beginning of March 2021, the education team was trying to make sense of what had happened to the children. I suggested finding a student and just telling the story from their perspective, instead of coming to a very broad conclusion that is still so fuzzy.

I wanted to focus on high school because I was so struck by a student leaving school in first grade or sophomore at the start of the high school experience, then coming back to apply to college and was on the point out. I contacted teachers and principals I knew and told them that I was looking for students who had an experience that was not too different from the norm.

I spoke to Genesis on the phone in March. At the age of 16, she had an unusual ability to think through what she was going through when she was going through him. We had that first conversation, and I knew I wanted to follow it from there.

As a journalist, what do you say about your intentions the first time you meet a high school student you plan to cover for six months?

GABRIELA BHASKAR: Usually when I work like this I don’t bring my camera the first time we meet. We met in a park and had a conversation about expectations and goals. What are the limits ? I told Genesis that if at any point she needed a break or felt uncomfortable with something, she should talk to me and that I would always respect her request.

SHAPIRO: I said that I would like to have a situation where we can talk a lot, once a week or so, and that I would like to come spend time with you. In this case, I want your mother to be fully aware. All I really ask of you is that you be open with me. I make sure everyone is in agreement with me and the photographer, Gabbie, being there.

How often have you been in contact and met?

SHAPIRO: Genesis and I spoke on the phone once a week on Friday afternoons. Most of my reporting was done over the phone. We have met in person frequently over the summer. Gabbie spent even more time with her. Gabbie and I became a team; Gabbie spent a day with her taking pictures, and I followed up with a phone call. Sometimes we would do this together and our two reports followed parallel tracks.

In a mission with this level of privacy, is it difficult to maintain journalistic distance?

SHAPIRO: There is no accountability journalism here about Genesis. We’re just trying to faithfully tell his story. We never try to put anything in the newspaper that would put her at a disadvantage. We were very candid with her about what we were going to write. I feel protective of my sources who are children. It’s not like a regular mission where I look for the responsibility of a politician or someone in power. It’s simple: tell someone’s story as it unfolds. I wasn’t worried about being too close to Genesis because the point was to get to know each other well.

BHASKAR: The issue is more about making sure the work is balanced and fair and about holding the work to journalistic ethics. I think it’s unrealistic to think that after spending six months with this incredibly dynamic teenager that a person is not going to get attached. For me, the decision was: “Is the work I create fair and balanced?” Am I looking at all angles of a story? “

The Metro office knew this report would be visual. How has this affected your approach?

SHAPIRO: It was a perfect example of a spectacle, don’t say it. The Genesis story wouldn’t have been so powerful if you hadn’t seen her waking her sister up for distance lessons or taking her out with her friends. I think we knew from the start that photography would be an essential part and that Gabbie and I would be real partners.

BHASKAR: Two things were difficult. It was a disappointing summer because of the Delta variant, and we had terrible weather. In July, it seemed to rain every day. Even though Genesis might have wanted to go out and play basketball, she couldn’t because it was raining. So we were in her one bedroom apartment all the time. How do you take pictures in this little place that look different from the rest? It was a challenge.

You reported on the difficulties students and schools had to cope during the pandemic. Did this mission reveal any realities to you?

BHASKAR: I think it was the opposite. I am constantly impressed by the resilience of young people. It’s important to say that I don’t want kids to have to be resilient. But when they are called, they really are. It was, for me, the most striking thing while working on this story.

SHAPIRO: By the time I started following Genesis, it was clear to me that distance learning was really disastrous for most kids. Following an ambitious student, seeing how much distance learning took her, seeing what she needed to do to support her family – it certainly brought home what I thought was happening.

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