2021 | Schools

Students across MCPS document pandemic experience in new publication

'Coming of Age in a Pandemic’ is a collaboration of 10 high schools

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Kelsea Petersen and Ashton Dodge illustrated the cover of "Coming of Age in a Pandemic."

In a year defined by separation as COVID-19 spread, dozens of high school students from across Montgomery County came together to create a publication documenting teen life, culture and pandemic experiences.

The goal for the publication, called “Coming of Age in a Pandemic,” was to give an authentic view into the life and minds of teenagers. Magazine contributors hoped to dispel the idea that teens were glued to their phones during the pandemic and didn’t care about school.

“I think we wanted to kind of break the disconnect that there has been between teens and the rest of the world because there was kind of this notion that because of online school … a lot of kids don’t care anymore, and they’re just sitting in their bed, like, with their camera off,” said Nikki Mirala, a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and the managing editor of the magazine’s mental health section. “But most of us … stay dedicated to our education and academics.”

“Coming of Age in a Pandemic” is an 84-page print magazine, plus a website featuring podcasts, videos and other student work that did not make it into print.

A free copy of the magazine can be ordered through a Google form, while supplies last.

Students wrote about an array of topics, including vape culture, climate change, eating disorders, teenage survivors of sexual assault, transgender student athletes, police brutality, and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Stacks of pages of “Coming of Age in a Pandemic,” pre-assembly. (Photo by John Marshall, administrative supervisor for MCPS Editorial, Graphics and Publishing Services)

Artwork, photography and illustrations came from student artists across the county and from Einstein High School’s Visual Art Center program.

“I think it’s gonna be almost like a time capsule,” said Sammy Schuchman, 17, a B-CC rising senior and editor for the magazine’s international section.

Missing out

The pandemic forced many teens to grow up quickly, miss out on pivotal high school experiences and sacrifice their social life for the health and safety of their families.

For B-CC graduate Kelsea Petersen, an art editor and co-illustrator of the magazine’s cover, being a senior during the pandemic meant skipping key milestones like senior night or prom.

“It sort of feels like we jumped from, like, a random day in March into, ‘Oh, well, now you need to be prepared to move to another state and go off into the world.’ And so that was sort of like a hard thing to grapple with,” said Petersen, who plans to study political science at Columbia University in the fall.

For students who contributed to the publication, collaborating and working with peers again was a highlight.

“It felt really nice to be a part of something again. That was one of my main motivations,” said Mimi Danzis, 16, a B-CC rising senior who worked on the magazine’s academics section.

Celeste Basken, 17, a rising senior at Montgomery Blair High School, said working on a project over Zoom was difficult and socially isolating. On the other hand, collaborating with and meeting students from different high schools was easier.

“I’ve been able to meet a lot of different people at B-CC and, sort of, other students with interests in film and journalism — creative interests,” Basken said. “I also think it’s been interesting to collaborate because different schools sort of bring different resources. … Different schools have different strengths, and it’s really nice to be able to collaborate across them.”

Karenna Barmada, 17, a B-CC rising senior, who wrote the magazine’s foreword, said, “I kind of felt like I lost connection with a lot of people my age, and a lot of people who are, like, going through junior year virtually. And I felt like [the publication] was a way to share my experiences and hear how other people were doing.”

A major symptom that students felt during pandemic online learning was procrastination and lack of motivation.

Khadijah Bah, a recent B-CC graduate, spoke with students who struggled with not just procrastination, but simply logging on to Zoom for class.

One student Bah spoke to said, “Even though I know that I need to do the work, it feels optional.” Another student said, “I procrastinate because I am so tired of looking at the screen.”

A Montgomery County Public Schools print shop employee carefully sets up a page for color printing. (Photo by John Marshall)

MCPS students also navigated how to stay connected with their passions and school extracurricular activities while being stuck at home.

Lilah Tuchband, a rising senior at B-CC, wrote about her school’s debate team, which adapted with virtual meetings and competitions.

Debate team members explained that a major challenge of debating through Zoom was not being able to read body language, making it difficult to know if judges liked their argument.

Looking at the positive

While the past year had been tough for students, the publication explored the positives of isolation during the pandemic, too.

Danzis and Kate Fitzgerald, a rising senior at B-CC, wrote about students who found new hobbies during lockdown, such as sewing and fashion design. Other students found themselves more comfortable with being alone and more self-sufficient.

And some enjoyed virtual school. Taking online classes at home helped students improve their sleep schedule and complete their school work more efficiently.

“Many people used their free time to explore more about themselves and came out of isolation as different people. Out of all the turmoil of the pandemic, we have seen some positive changes,” Danzis and Fitzgerald wrote.

Students said it was not ideal to do virtual interviews, design and layout, and coordinate visuals for each piece across high schools, yet the process of putting together the magazine and website went smoothly.

B-CC anthropology and journalism teacher David Lopilato came up with the idea for the publication. He told his anthropology students and his journalism class, hoping students would hop on the idea.

The anthropologist in Lopilato saw the importance of teenagers sharing what they are going through, especially during a historical event as major as a global pandemic.

“I just really wanted them to capture the moment while it was happening,” he said. “And so … I needed to convince them that it had significant historical significance, then cultural significance. But once they got that message, they ran with it from there.”

Print run

Before the magazine was finalized, Lopilato said, the editors had to trim the magazine from about 130 pages to 80 pages.

Initially, the publication was planned to only be online because students did not have the money to print a magazine as big as the one they planned, Lopilato said. Then, MCPS caught wind of “Coming of Age in a Pandemic” and agreed to print it.

David Lopilato and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School students observe the Montgomery County Public Schools print shop in action. (Photo by Tom Bourdeaux, publications art director for MCPS)

When John Marshall, the administrative supervisor for MCPS Editorial, Graphics and Publishing Services — the print shop — heard about the project, he was on a mission to find ways to improve the experience of high school seniors going through their last year of school over Zoom.

“I thought this was a really great opportunity for us to impact the senior experience. And the students just came through big. So, we’re really excited,” Marshall said.

MCPS allocated $5,000 to print 7,000 copies, according to Marshall. Every MCPS middle school media specialist will receive five copies for school libraries.

MCPS will print more copies based on the number of orders through July, according to Lopilato. “They are dedicated to sharing the magazine with high schools and college (among others) nationwide,” he wrote in an email.

“Coming of Age in a Pandemic” is just part of MCPS’s effort to make journalism accessible for students in the county.

In 2020, MCPS was set to begin a pilot year for its first countywide student magazine, called The Amplifier. But, that came to a halt when the pandemic hit, according to Lopilato.

In the fall, The Amplifier will pick up where the students behind “Coming of Age in a Pandemic” left off.

Marshall hopes all 26 MCPS high schools can fully participate in The Amplifier.

After months of compiling articles, illustrations, poetry, and creative pieces across the county, students are excited to see their hard work in physical form — an artifact of their year of isolation and adaptation.

“I think it’s so important and useful. If, in the future … anyone wants to understand a teen perspective — which I think is lost a lot of times — and like historical events, [this publication] exists,” said Carmen Lopez Hernandez, 17, a B-CC rising senior who illustrated, edited and wrote for the magazine. “It’s really exciting to know that we were a part of helping make an artifact that could be helpful, if you want to understand [teen perspective] in the future.”

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Students who worked on “Coming of Age in a Pandemic” are hosting a night of performances to celebrate the printing and publication of their magazine on Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m. The event, called “Music, Monologues, Open Mic and More,” will be held at Artery Plaza at 7200 Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda.