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Covering Education in a Crisis
Two journalists discuss the challenges and rewards of working the education beat and how COVID-19 has changed things for them

This blog was republished with permission from The Wallace Foundation, which published it first. (Disclaimer: The Wallace Foundation is one of EWA’s sustaining funders.)  

Education has been at the center of the news over the past couple of years as the nation continues to wrestle with the pandemic and the havoc it has wreaked on schools. Education writers, too, have at times found themselves having to stretch to cover more areas of public policy, health issues and basic concerns like food and housing.

In early 2020, just before the first cases of COVID began to surface in the U.S., the Education Writers Association commissioned the EdWeek Research Center to conduct a study of education journalism. Released the following year, the State of the Beat report surveyed 419 education journalists, following up with 24 phone conversations, to tell the story of the people who are covering education today. 

According to the survey, 83% of respondents said education journalism is a career path they’re committed to pursuing, and 98% said their w​​​ork has had a positive impact on the community. Despite these positive perceptions, education journalists surveyed indicated that they face serious challenges–from outright harassment and hostility to diminishing resources, financial difficulties and the public’s distrust in the news media.

“​School and home overlapped in so many ways that it became more important to understand both contexts—the expectations that schools were placing on families for virtual learning and the nature of quarantine policies, for example, combined with the challenges children and parents faced at home.​” — Linda Jacobson

The Wallace blog spoke with two education writers to discuss some of the obstacles and bright spots they’ve encountered and how the pandemic has affected the education beat in general. Linda Jacobson, senior writer at The 74 Million, has been covering education for over a decade, and Dahlia Bazzaz, education reporter at The Seattle Times, has been covering education for about four years.

Her first two years at the publication were spent as an engagement editor for the Education Lab, a project that started in 2013 that spotlights promising approaches to some of the most persistent challenges in public education. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The Wallace Foundation: Linda, as a veteran in education writing, can you talk about how the education beat has changed during the pandemic?

Linda Jacobson: For me, the access to and growing awareness of families’ and educators’ lives outside of school has been a noticeable departure from how I, and probably many other reporters, routinely interacted with sources prior to the pandemic. School and home overlapped in so many ways that it became more important to understand both contexts—the expectations that schools were placing on families for virtual learning and the nature of quarantine policies, for example, combined with the challenges children and parents faced at home.

Did they have reliable internet? Were students sharing a study space with siblings? Did they have to go to work with their parents? I know I also had to develop knowledge in some areas that were outside the typical boundaries of education policy. COVID testing, vaccines, supply chain issues and broadband access are a few examples.

WF: Dahlia, You were a member of EWA’s New to the Beat rookie class in 2018. What was it like being newer to the education beat in the middle of a pandemic? Can you talk about some of the challenges? 

Dahlia Bazzaz: By the time the pandemic began, I had been a full-time reporter for about two years, and an engagement editor for the education team for two years prior to that. For some context, I covered the closure of Bothell High School in the Seattle area, the first school in the United States to shutter in the pandemic. I remember pairing up with our health reporter at the time for that first story, and believing it would blow over.

A few months prior, a Seattle school had closed because of a norovirus outbreak, so this type of story wasn’t unusual to me. Two days later, on February 29, when a King County man’s death was announced as the first known in the U.S. from the coronavirus, I realized I had helped write some of the earliest pages of our pandemic history. One of our stories, about the order closing all schools in King County, actually “broke” the analytics tracker that the Seattle Times uses and set a pageview record.

“To fully capture how the disruption of foundational services are affecting people, you have to understand them at a deep level, and understand how they used to work (and not work) before 2020.” — Dahlia Bazzaz​

The pressure and responsibility we felt, and still feel, was immense. Children are the most vulnerable members of our society. Almost every day early on, someone would cry during an interview. Then I would cry afterward as I processed their worries about their future and my own. We got an unprecedented amount of feedback and attention on our reporting from around the world. 

It was a huge test of everything I’d learned about the education system and government until that point. To fully capture how the disruption of foundational services are affecting people, you have to understand them at a deep level, and understand how they used to work (and not work) before 2020. I also found myself truly living in every single beat—one day a health reporter, researching the best air filtration systems for schools, another day out at protests against institutional racism and police brutality. The definition of education beat reporter has really expanded.

A lot of things helped me keep going. I am fortunate to live and work in a community where there are many kids and adults willing to spend time speaking with a reporter in the midst of chaos and trauma in their lives. I am forever thankful to them for their trust. My experienced colleagues came up with the questions I never thought to ask because my reporting or life hadn’t taken me there yet.

The Education Lab team has also kept a steady lens on racism and inequity in schools, which meant our first questions and stories centered on how the pandemic would affect kids of color, kids receiving special education services and kids living in low-income communities. I’m a better education reporter now, almost four years into the game, than I was two years ago. But part of that improvement is realizing how much I didn’t know and how much I still need to learn. The pandemic made me see that.

WF: According to the State of the Beat report, access has been a challenge for education journalists. What kind of access do you have to school leaders and how has that changed during the pandemic?

LJ: Because I cover education from a national perspective and don’t concentrate on a specific district, it’s rare that I get to visit and meet with leaders in person. It might only happen if I’m reporting on something in the Los Angeles area, where I live, or traveling for a story. But I’m constantly developing connections with superintendent and principal organizations at both the national and state levels. On deadline, they’ve been quick to refer me to principals or district leaders, and I’ve found that throughout the pandemic, many have been especially candid about their experiences.

Perhaps it’s because whether they were in rural Georgia or the Pacific Northwest, they’ve all experienced the same dilemmas—burned out teachers, annoyed parents and disengaged students. Instead of being reticent, many leaders I’ve interviewed over the past two years have talked as if they were almost waiting for someone to ask how they were coping. Our retrospective on 700 days of the pandemic, in particular, was a platform for some of these leaders to share their personal and professional reflections.

DB: Because Western Washington schools opened later compared to the rest of the country, there was a good solid year where our coverage took place outside. We managed to get inside a few schools in between, but they were outside of the Seattle area, where policies on visitors inside schools were less restrictive.

Since schools reopened full-time this past fall, the access has been really dependent on the district. Some are much more open and friendly to reporters than others. Or the access appears predicated on the type of story we’re pursuing.

WF: The survey also shows that journalists are split on whether or not K-12 schools were going in the right direction—roughly half say they are going in the right direction and the other half say they’re not. Do you think these numbers would look different now, given everything that has changed in the education field over the past 2 years? Why or why not?

LJ: My coverage largely focuses on this exact question, so I don’t think it’s my place to share any personal perspectives here or speculate on what journalists would say. It’s important for me to keep the lines of communication open with sources that fully believe in traditional public schools as well as those working outside of the system to offer new options to children and families.

Besides, there’s never an easy answer to that question. For students and families, these aren’t simple, either-or choices. There are challenges and marks of success with all schools and educational models.

DB: This is a hard question because I personally don’t feel we have a uniform experience of education in the United States. It is vast, it is inequitable and it is largely dependent on zip code. I think we’ve seen how heavily state and local policies drive what happens in schools, especially when it comes to funding and the efforts in places to suppress teaching about racism and social issues.

Here in Washington State, I’ve had the opportunity to witness a lot of things that make me hopeful at the local level. Our job at Education Lab is to find promising, research-backed solutions to longstanding problems in education. For example, I’ve been able to read and report about ways schools and nonprofits are successfully improving kids’ reading skills or finding alternatives to suspending and expelling students.

But for a variety of reasons, promising practices can take a long time before they float up to state policy, if they even do at all. School districts still rake in more money if their community has high home values and is amenable to passing levies. So, even within a state, there can be a multitude of different experiences and outcomes for kids. I don’t believe the pandemic has changed this.

WF: How do you cover such hot-button issues while retaining your journalistic point of view?

LJ: I’ve worked hard over the past two years to understand the arguments on all sides of the more contentious issues we’ve covered—reopening schools, mask mandates, vaccine requirements, discussions of race and gender. I always try to represent the multiple positions in my articles, and again, for families and teachers, these issues can be more complicated than the public debate suggests.

We try to capture that when we can. I think we’ve also strived to give readers realistic expectations about where things are headed and the relevant legal and policy options. If a lawsuit or piece of legislation has no chance of advancing, we try to make that clear.

DB: I think the key to covering hot-button issues is not losing sight of who the issue will affect the most. Because that is often not the person who will be the most accessible to the press or the loudest person in the room. In education reporting, we need to remind ourselves that it’s about the kids. They are the recipients of this system. It matters the most what happens to them as a result of any policy or change.

WF: What are some of the big issues we should be watching in 2022? Where might we see some “bright spots”?

LJ: We ran an article in the fall of 2020 with the headline, “Right Now, All Students are Mobile,” quoting a source with expertise on the issue of student mobility. There are students who have spent each year of the pandemic in a different schooling situation—traditional, homeschooled, a virtual charter.

Recent research is showing that the correlation between multiple school changes and declining academic performance is even stronger than previously thought. It’s another aspect of the long-term effects of the pandemic’s disruption that I know I want to better understand.

With our recent coverage of enrollment trends, I think it’s important to keep following the departure of students from urban districts and the tough decisions leaders will make regarding school consolidations and closures. And we need to understand where families are going, what districts and new models they’re choosing and how those decisions are working for students.

Data is emerging not just on how districts plan to spend federal relief money, but actually how they’ve spent it. There are endless opportunities there to track where it goes and what difference it makes for students.​

Certainly, we’ll be watching the midterm elections. President Biden already hasn’t been able to accomplish all he set out to do in the early phases of his presidency—including his plan for child care, universal pre-K, and teacher and administrator preparation. And if Republicans gain control of the House—or the House and Senate—that could bring his agenda to a standstill.

As for bright spots, I would expect that districts have learned a lot from the past two summers and that there would be even more ambitious and creative examples of summer learning programs to watch this year.

DB: I’m interested in watching how schools spend their unprecedented amount in federal aid due to the pandemic. The last of those funds expire in a couple of years from now, so we’ll need to keep our eyes on those dollars for a while.

These funds can be used to start helpful beneficial programs for kids most affected by the past two years, and we need to be shining a light on where and if that happens—and whether people in power will invest to prolong their lifespan. We should also be holding leaders accountable for the promises they made to improve the education system for Black and brown students in 2020.