How Chalkbeat Took a Deep Dive Into COVID-19’s Impact on School Communities

by Evan Weston & Ajalae Weiser-Lilly


Chalkbeat’s project titled Pandemic 360 takes a comprehensive look at how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the educational system in New York City, New York, and Newark, New Jersey. Reporters spent months with families to build trust and tell the stories of those who provided education to children during a pandemic. Univision 41 partnered with Chalkbeat to do pandemic-related projects using grant money, and the grant and partnership allowed Chalkbeat reporters to reach the most afflicted communities.

Organization Background: Chalkbeat’s website says its mission is “to cover one of America’s most important stories: The effort to improve schools for all children, especially those who have historically lacked access to a quality education.” Chalkbeat is a non-profit and receives funding from several private sponsors, and the organization publicly reports donations of over a thousand dollars.


Project Goals: Chalkbeat’s goal with the Pandemic 360 project was to amplify the voices of families most affected by the pandemic and foster a broader discussion of solutions that bring about change in educational policy and practice.

  • Develop complex relationships with families and school community members.
  • Reach a large, diverse audience through several avenues.
  • Create a discussion of solutions on a national scale.
  • Highlight mental health resources.
  • Identify programs that were working in schools to build community and address mental health concerns, such as the Community School Program.

Community schools refer to publicly funded schools that partner with community businesses and organizations to provide services beyond that of a traditional school. The school offers families before and after-school programs like health and wellness support.

Project Resources: Univision 41 worked with Chalkbeat using grant money to create a pandemic-related project. The grant funding allowed reporters to use otherwise unavailable outreach tools and to translate each article into Spanish.

Tools & Technology: Chalkbeat worked with partners to send a survey to a large number of families using:

  • Google forms
  • SMS texts
  • Facebook Direct Messaging
  • Twitter

Chalkbeat purchased bulk phone numbers and used zip codes associated with low internet access to reach communities without informational resources. Chalkbeat used public data on COVID hotspots to identify which zip codes to target with the survey. They also translated the survey into Spanish.

Chalkbeat sent SMS texts using these phone numbers. Chalkbeat’s Community Engagement Manager Caroline Bauman says, “Yeah, that was one where we probably wouldn’t do that again.” Bauman says it felt too much like being a telemarketer.

At the same time, Bauman noted that by using Google forms in Spanish and English, they were able to hear from 275 readers: “That’s far more voices than we would’ve heard from with traditional ‘boots on the ground’ reporting. It allowed us to really listen to these communities on the front end of this project and focus on the questions and problems they told us were most relevant to them.”

Impact: Increased awareness of the importance of before and after-school programs 

  • US Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona visited PSAT Nine, a community school that was featured in Pandemic 360.
  • After the series was published, a Florida school administrator wrote that their school was starting a mental health awareness WhatsApp chat like one featured in a Pandemic 360 story.
  • A parent in Georgia copied an idea for a mental health wellness group identical to one highlighted in a Pandemic 360 story.
  • Chalkbeat reporters developed lasting important connections with local New York City and Newark school communities.

How it Happened

Chalkbeat developed intimate relationships with families and school community members to target and amplify the voices of families most affected by the pandemic. Using grant funding, Chalkbeat reached a broad spectrum of individuals through surveys and interviews.

What Worked

1. Partnering with Univision 41

The partnership led to “additional funding, translation services, and TV appearances for our reporters,” Bauman says. “It was a very fruitful partnership.”

2. Keeping the project’s focus on two school communities

Focusing on two schools allowed richer, more in-depth storytelling. The reporters were able to spend more time getting to know sources and establishing trust with them and the school’s community. Photographers had more time to capture powerful shots. “We went deeper, not broader,” Bauman says.

3. Hosting a panel event after the project’s stories were published

Once Pandemic 360 stories were published, Chalkbeat hosted a culminating event attended live by more than 300 people. They brought the editorial staff from Pandemic 360, journalists, and the people featured in the stories onto a panel and welcomed the community to come and ask them questions. Bauman says this event led to rich discussions and questions from community members and allowed them to publish and share robust mental health resources.

What Could Have Worked Better

1. Establishing more partnerships with different language publications such as radio, papers and magazines

Univision 41 is a Spanish-language outlet, but Bauman says the stories could have reached a broader audience had they partnered with additional Spanish-language outlets. Additionally, Bauman thinks it would have been helpful to spread Pandemic 360’s stories if more funding was available to translate stories into other languages prominent in New York and Newark, such as Portuguese. “We didn’t have the time or resources,” Bauman says.

2. Having more face-to-face interactions

Because of the pandemic, Chalkbeat did a lot of reporting via Zoom. Zoom sometimes prevented reporters from developing a complex relationship with interview subjects because emotions are hard to translate through a screen. Chalkbeat recognized that in-person reporting is the ideal form of newsgathering. Patrick Wall, a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, says, “some of it [reporting] was just kind of just to meet people and kind of develop a little rapport or your face.” Developing a rapport becomes challenging without the ability to meet people in person.

3. Starting Earlier

The Pandemic 360 projects had a short deadline, which proved complicated as Chalkbeat journalists attempted to gain trust with sources during a pandemic – something that traditionally develops with time. “It was a lot to try to accomplish in a short period of time,” Carrie Melago, one of the managing editors at Chalkbeat, says.

What Else You Should Know

Chalkbeat worked with community members to amplify the voices of families affected by the pandemic. By building complex relationships, reporters integrated themselves into the communities they covered—exposing failures and successes in the school system.

Learn More

To learn more, reach out to engagement editor Caroline Bauman by email or Twitter. You can also check out the following links:

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