The COVID-19 pandemic touched everyone. But, while most were at lower risk of getting sick, school students felt profound effects from months of interrupted classroom time, spotty remote learning and loss of personal connections with friends and trusted mentors.
Much of the information about how students weathered the pandemic has come from adults, but in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, the Laconia Daily Sun embarked on an ambitious project to hear directly from young people about their COVID experiences and other issues important to them — and to do something about what they heard.
Through its Voices project, the Sun wrote a series of stories based on interviews of middle and high school students and “listening sessions” where young people described their experiences and concerns. It plans more stories to highlight potential solutions to issues raised by the students and a public event with experts and local leaders to discuss how to tailor solutions to the community.
“We definitely wanted to open our pages up to the young voices that are not usually heard by the rest of the community,” said Publisher Adam Hirshan, “not only to get these important ideas and identify important issues so we could come up with solutions, but also to make sure the young people knew and felt that they were being heard and that their voices can make a difference.
“That’s as important as the message they are giving us,” he said.
Voices is funded through a grant to the nonprofit Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications from the Herr Family Trust of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, established by Eric and Rebecca Herr of Hill.
Eric Herr, a former information technology executive, consultant, publisher and government servant, has worked with Hirshan for years to try to improve the quality of civil discourse in the Lakes Region, mainly involving adults.
Herr and Hirshan wondered what kids would have to say and whether they and the newspaper could make a difference by featuring young voices. The idea was based partly on a pandemic conversation Herr’s wife, Rebecca, had with their eight-year-old granddaughter.
“At one point, my wife said to her, ‘Don’t worry, things will return to normal soon’ and my granddaughter said to her, ‘Things will never return to normal,’” Herr said. “It was just a crushing comment that an eight-year-old would be that pessimistic about the current environment.”
She was not alone. Through “listening sessions” at Laconia’s Middle School and High School, interviews and a public event in March at the CAKE Theatre in Laconia, students spoke of falling behind academically and feeling isolated, stressed out and frustrated by a lack of emotional support, even at home.
“My parents said that I was just seeking attention when I was trying to talk to them about how I feel,” one student said at the event.
As reported by The Sun, more than a dozen middle and high school students attended the event, in the middle of a fierce late-winter snowstorm. Some came with their parents. Others attended alone.
Many said studying online with little guidance and many distractions was erratic — minimal work on some days, too much on others.
“I just skipped my classes,” said one student. “I just slept in.”
The project also heard from students who had more positive experiences.
“I learned how to be more organized,” a high schooler said in an interview with The Sun. “Before, I leaned on teachers to keep that structure.”
Many students lamented the strident divisions on issues ranging from vaccinations to remote learning to politics in general. One said the country spends too much time debating problems and not enough on solving them.
The next step is to show the young people that what they said matters. The Sun will employ a Solutions Journalism approach, not merely reporting on the concerns, but examining how similar issues have been addressed elsewhere and what possible solutions might be options in the Lakes Region.
Considering solutions began at the March session, where many students spoke of the lack of contact with friends. Parents who attended discussed creating an adult-free, drug-free community spot for teens to congregate safely after school.
“I don’t think there is anything as powerful as believing that you are being listened to and this was dedicated to listening to the kids,” Herr said. “I hope that they left the event believing that, and now we have to walk the talk and do something about it.”
In addition to creating relationships with the community’s young people, Herr and Hirshan said an important aspect of the Voices project was to enhance local journalism and strengthen a trusting relationship between The Sun and its array of community partners. He cited City Hall; the schools; the Laconia Youth Alliance; Lakes Region Mental Health Center; the CAKE Theatre; and Recycled Percussion’s Justin Spencer, who offered a recorded motivational message at the March event.
“In many communities, the role of the local newspaper is diminishing, so one of the goals I have is doing more events and reaching out directly to the community to enhance the role of the newspaper directly in the community,” Hirshan said.
Herr said Voices showed that the pandemic affected young people much more than he had imagined. He also was struck by how aware students are about current political divisiveness and how it’s affecting them.
He envisioned Voices would give young people experience in civil civic dialogue, something he said many adults also could learn.
“I thought the kids might be better at it than adults and might show us something about how it can be done,” he said.
That goal was not lost on one high school student interviewed by The Sun.
“I think the generation of kids that are coming out of this are going to do really positive things in this world,” the student said. “I think that we’ve seen what we dislike and we’re going to change it.”