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College Newspapers Aim To Keep Schools Transparent During Pandemic

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

COVID-19 has changed almost everything about college this fall. Outbreaks have popped up just about everywhere students have come back to campus. James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, has logged over 1,300 cases since campus reopened August 21. Ivan Jackson is a senior at JMU. He's the executive editor of the college newspaper there called the Breeze

IVAN JACKSON: I love JMU and everything about JMU and what it's given me. But, you know, just the way that this has been handled - and from the very beginning, the message from the university was students are going to really have to police themselves. You know, that sounds great. But it's not a concrete strategy.

GREENE: For one thing, he says, it's just really hard to get tested for COVID-19 even at the university clinic. Ivan got tested after he found out he was exposed. He was negative. But his roommates...

JACKSON: Two of them got it. So we all self-isolated for the 14 days or so. And then third one got it, so we had to isolate again. So (laughter) I've spent quite a bit of my time this semester, you know, isolating in my room. Everybody's fine, though.

GREENE: Two hundred miles away at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, senior Anna Pogarcic is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. UNC made headlines after reopening for in-person classes only to shut down a week after classes began. Anna reported on the clusters of COVID-19 that emerged in student housing that first week.

ANNA POGARCIC: The choices of the university are literally affecting the health and safety of the people who work here and who attend school here. And they didn't have to reopen.

GREENE: Now, Anna and Ivan are experiencing a truly unusual final year of college. They're students, of course. But they're also journalists who are navigating complicated federal privacy laws, like HIPAA and FERPA, to try and keep their universities transparent.

POGARCIC: Reporting that we did over the summer and also just the activities of student activists and public health experts that our university employs and consulted with were all telling the university this was a bad idea. And to have four clusters be reported within the first week of classes, to us, was just mind-blowing.

GREENE: Anna's paper actually ran an editorial about the clusters shortly after. And it got a lot of people's attention, including Ivan's.

JACKSON: We saw your headline, Anna. We looked to you guys quite a bit throughout our process of covering and how you guys were doing it. And one of the things we kind of got from you guys was trying to get the data from dormitories. That was kind of a massive headache for us. You know, we asked over the phone, in person. We sent FOIA requests. And they denied it, citing HIPAA regulations - which we sought legal advice. And we were told that HIPAA wasn't a reason not to give us cluster data. So it's been kind of a struggle with the university and our relationship with them, with the administration. And so we really did look to a UNC and the Daily Tar Heel for advice on that one.

POGARCIC: That means a lot coming from you. Thank you so much.

JACKSON: (Laughter).

POGARCIC: I mean, it's kind of been the same year except UNC is citing FERPA...

JACKSON: (Laughter).

POGARCIC: ...As a reason not to release cluster information. So like I mentioned earlier, we had those four clusters that were announced during the first week. And luckily, UNC was doing press releases and everything when new clusters were announced. But they wouldn't say the specific number of cases in each cluster. So finally, we ended up doing a story about it, basically calling them out, saying FERPA isn't a reason. You can definitely release information as long as no one's personally identified. And then after that story was released - obviously, they didn't credit us to this. But they did start releasing specific cluster information on their dashboard, which was really helpful. So we've been successful there. But there's still some left to be desired in terms of the university's transparency.

GREENE: As both of you have watched as journalists, do you see the university's point of view? I mean, do you see them trying to find the right balance, keep students safe, but also facing financial realities and other stuff?

JACKSON: Absolutely. For us, when we first got to JMU, we actually had a meeting with a lot of the administrators and the deans. And one of the first things we did was we thanked them because we understand that this is something that they've never had to deal with. And we understand that they spent extensive amounts of time planning over the summer for this. And I know they want it to happen as much as we want it to happen. So you know, we recognize that this isn't easy. But at the same time, it's the reality that we're all facing across the country. JMU's facing it. UNC's facing it. But we hope that they strike that right balance of safety and education and cost. We just hope that they can reopen the schools in a safe manner.

POGARCIC: It's been a little bit more complicated for me, I think, at UNC. UNC announced its plan to reopen way back in May when COVID-19 numbers in North Carolina were relatively low. And even as they were increasing over the summer and our local health department was telling UNC it should have online classes, UNC kept pushing forward and reopening, kind of ignoring all of that. And then, as we can all tell, it backfired a week into classes. And what's more on top of that is in the time since, our university has stood a hard line in terms of reiterating that they don't regret their decision. And that's just really hard for a lot of students to hear when they move to campus as first-years and had to move right back home after a week or RAs who just lost their job while the chancellor didn't cut his own salary.

And so it's hard to see that the university was taking student feedback into account. And I'm grateful to hear that the chancellor announced that they're going to create a specific advisory group made up of students and faculty and town members to prepare for the spring. And I hope that that can take more student feedback into consideration. But I think that the university has made it harder for itself to kind of defend its decision by either purposefully obstructing information or ignoring it entirely.

GREENE: Could I ask you both for a moment to take off your editors' hats and talk as students? I mean, my God, you're both seniors. And this has to be a senior year like nothing you ever imagined.

JACKSON: (Laughter).

GREENE: I mean, how are you both dealing with that and what this all means for sort of what your expectation was for college life and what your future looks like?

POGARCIC: Well, (laughter) I had an interview with the chancellor before classes started. And we were just kind of making small talk before I started recording. And he asked how I was doing. And I said, listen; I just want a graduation in May. And (laughter) if you can do that...

JACKSON: (Laughter).

POGARCIC: ...Then I'll be happy because, yeah, I'm still kind of processing everything that I'm going to miss out on this year. And it's - kind of hits me in waves.

JACKSON: (Laughter).

POGARCIC: I'm not super big into, like, all the kind of traditions that students have on campus here. But I was looking forward to getting my senior year ticket to the Duke-UNC basketball game.

JACKSON: (Laughter).

POGARCIC: And I don't think that's going to happen now (laughter). So kind of realizing stuff like that has been hard. And I know I'm not the only student who feels like this. But it just seems like none of the fun parts, I guess, about being at UNC are here this year because, you know, you can't really see your friends. You can't go to social activities. You can't really go out to eat. And so that just makes it a lot harder. But I don't know. I'm trying to truck along, just trying to get my degree and...

JACKSON: (Laughter).

POGARCIC: ...Stay as safe as possible.

JACKSON: Oh, no. I absolutely agree, you know? I think it kind of hit me earlier on in the summer that, in all likelihood, this year is not going to be the same college year I've had. But I think - the way I look at it is I'm thankful that, you know, everybody that I love in my life and the people I hold close, they're safe right now. And I know that a lot of people in the world can't really say the same. So even if my senior year isn't what I wanted it to be or, you know, what I'd imagined it to be, I'm just thankful to be here and to have what I have right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIKAGAKU MOYO'S "NOBAKITANI")

GREENE: Ivan Jackson, executive editor of the Breeze at JMU, and Anna Pogarcic, editor-in-chief of the University of North Carolina's Daily Tar Heel.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIKAGAKU MOYO'S "NOBAKITANI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.