The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday September 21st

Column: A cruel summer, spring and fall of covering COVID-19 at UNC

From March 2020 to now, we reflect on a year of reporting during a pandemic.

Students at UNC-Chapel Hill waiting in line at the CURRENT Art Space to get tested for COVID-19. Photo taken on Jan. 19, 2021.
Buy Photos Students at UNC-Chapel Hill waiting in line at the CURRENT Art Space to get tested for COVID-19. Photo taken on Jan. 19, 2021.

One year ago, UNC announced it would shift to remote learning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Former University Editor Maeve Sheehey and current University Editor Maddie Ellis share their experiences covering the pandemic as student journalists. 

Maeve Sheehey, University editor 2019-2020

Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez, then co-editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, walked over to my desk in late January 2020 to ask if we’d assigned any COVID-19 stories related to the University yet. 

I literally laughed. 

How could the coronavirus, then a faraway threat, possibly impact UNC? I assured Marco that I would “keep an eye on” the situation, with no actual intent to do so, and turned back to my work. 

A month or two later, I was half-asleep and writing a breaking story at 1 in the morning. The Chancellor had just announced that students who traveled out of state for Spring Break might have to quarantine when they returned. I was starting to realize that the pandemic was closing in on us, though I couldn’t possibly envision the effect it would prove to have. 

As the University editor at the DTH, I covered study abroad programs sending students home, classes going online and cases rising throughout the community. While covering the shift to digital, I observed fear in the community as people lost loved ones to the virus. I saw my fellow students struggle with remote classes. I was personally confused and scared about how long the virus would be a part of everyday life. 

Suddenly, covering the University community no longer meant face-to-face interactions and event coverage, followed by furious typing to meet deadline in the DTH office. It meant calling students from childhood bedrooms, covering meetings over Zoom, juggling laptop split screens of classes and articles. 

It also meant that everyone in our newsroom put 100 percent effort into covering something we’d never seen before. 

One day early in the pandemic, I was on a run when news broke. I started writing a story on my phone, sitting on a sidewalk in someone’s neighborhood as confused passersby walked their dogs around me. Less than an hour after that, news broke again — and this time, one of my assistant editors, Hannah Lang (who was also away from her laptop) took that on. 

All in all, I’m pretty sure at least five stories, University and otherwise, broke that day. Then Copy Chief Brandon Standley edited articles on his phone in a Bojangles parking lot, making sure there was no delay in getting them published. Nobody complained. We just laughed about the absurdity of multiple stories breaking at the absolute worst time in each of our days. 

I won’t sugar-coat it: the pandemic made covering the University incredibly difficult. Outside the logistical issues of reporting virtually, it was hard to edit multiple stories a day about how students were struggling — especially while dealing with our own pandemic-related troubles. Still, we published stories about the community banding together to help feed health care workers and professors working overtime to make sure their students knew they cared

In the now virtual newsroom, I was inspired by the work of my two assistant editors, Hannah and Evely (even though we could no longer sing along to “Cruel Summer” in the middle of the newsroom). I was proud to see what other desks were doing to keep their coverage relevant, and it made me want to do better myself. 

When I reminisce on my time as University editor at the DTH, I might purposefully block out the two-month tornado of covering COVID-19. But the experience taught me not to take things for granted — not in-person classes or a bustling newsroom or even a normal senior year. And the work of my fellow editors and writers made me proud to work at the DTH. 

Maddie Ellis, University editor 2020-21

When the pandemic started, I was an arts and culture assistant editor (the arts-assistant-to-University-desk-editor pipeline is strong — just ask Maeve). I remember being in the office, talking about how nice it might be to have a random two weeks off and thinking, "Surely, it couldn’t be any longer than two weeks, right?"

Famously, I was so wrong. 

Part of why I wanted to be University desk editor in the first place was because of moments like that. Moments of just being in the office, hearing Hannah, Evely and Maeve sing “Cruel Summer,” getting Cosmic Cantina with former co-Editor-in-Chief Emily Siegmund and talking about our Percy Jackson opinions and playing so, so, so many rounds of Catch Phrase. 

But while I was editing stories from my childhood bedroom, all those connections felt so far away. I remember FaceTiming people after the workday, trying to recreate that feeling of just sitting on the couches in the DTH office and unwinding after a stressful day. One night, we even tried to play Catch Phrase over Zoom (it can work, trust me).

I took over as University desk editor in early August, right around the time of the release of the Orange County Health Department letter and the University’s sexual assault disciplinary records. Sonia Rao, the city and state editor, and I were both finishing up internships at the Charlotte Observer when the OCHD news broke. That was a day of frantic multitasking, and one of the first days where I realized just what I had gotten myself into by taking this job. 

When I think about covering the University during COVID-19, as Phoebe Bridgers once said, "I have emotional motion sickness." It can be so draining. Like the week at the beginning of the semester that started with the announcement of two COVID-19 clusters, and four days later, resulted in remote-only classes, de-densified dorms and national attention. I thought I couldn’t keep up. 

Every day brought a new campus email with new information. Back in the spring, my first thought when I got those emails was, “What does that mean for me?” Now, it’s, “Where’s my computer?” 

During the fall semester, there were so many nights that I was convinced I could not do this anymore. Such as when we were in a staff meeting and my computer storage ran out and completely froze. I didn’t know what to do. There were still so many articles to read, stories to assign and updates to give. 

But the loud screeching sound from my keyboard quickly killed everything on my to-do list. 

I went back to my apartment and cried. I had been moving so fast for so long, and having to slow down made all my stress, worries and anxieties fall right on my shoulders and remind me of all the missteps and failures of the past semester. My friend helped me fix my computer through my dramatic tears (David, I’m thankful for that moment to this day) and then I pulled myself together — because there was still work to be done. 

What has undeniably kept me together through the whole thing has been the people. I manage a staff of over 40 people. Many of them joined the DTH in the fall semester. When I thought the world was falling apart, these staffers wanted to go out and report on what was happening. 

And it reminded me why I loved this in the first place: I wanted to tell necessary stories and report information that can help make being a student a little easier. And just when I thought I was giving up on that mission, my reporters always brought fresh ideas, original sourcing and incredible articles that reminded me how important our work is. 

And I can’t say enough about my fellow editors. My incredible assistants, Anna, Allie and Evely, who I trust with my life; Maeve, one of my greatest mentors; Anna Pogarcic, one of my first friends at the DTH; Sonia, Brandon, Will, Paige — truly every soul at this paper who makes me feel like a person first, reporter second. 

Covering COVID-19 is so far from over. But I know we got this. 

Armed with our eclectic playlists, 1 a.m. Slack messages, Taylor Swift fights and shared love of journalism — we got this. 

@MaeveSheehey | @madelinellis

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