TAMPA, Fla. — Kyla Hoffbauer sat at home, quarantined from school, contemplating how she and her Freedom High yearbook team would meet deadline. Their spread on the senior class president was due to the publisher soon.
“We went to take a picture, and she’s gone,” student life editor Becca Hoffbauer told her twin sister, who serves as editor-in-chief of The Glory, in a Zoom call from Freedom’s New Tampa campus.
The class president was quarantined, too, for two weeks. The pages would have to wait.
Such twists have become routine for yearbook staffs this school year.
Because of the pandemic, they’ve faced canceled activities, absent classmates, limited access and more as they’ve attempted to pull together publications that reflect a school year like no other. Their goal: to create something that shows the influence of the coronavirus, without letting it become the whole story.
“It’s definitely a year to remember,” said Lena Conway, editor-in-chief of the Warrior at Seminole High in mid-Pinellas County. “People are going to look back on this year. They’re not going to see just the bad, but also the good.”
Last spring, yearbook kids didn’t have problems gathering material. By the time the coronavirus forced classes online for the final quarter, everything had already gone to the publishers.
“All we had to do was add a supplement” to describe those weeks of distance learning, Conway recalled. “This year, it was different.”
The pandemic changed everything. Group pictures, a yearbook staple, are no longer a given.
“We can’t really have those because of COVID restrictions,” said Kole Kemple, people editor for Mitchell High’s Stampede, who has done his work amid four separate, two-week quarantines. “We normally like to capture that sense of unity in the student body.”
That’s not easy to do with masks and social distancing. At Mitchell, the administration frowned upon approaching students in the hallways to ask for comments to accompany photos and stories, co-editor-in-chief Jillian Misemer said.
“It’s a little bit of a struggle,” she said.
At some schools, teachers wouldn’t welcome yearbook staff into classrooms. Many sports activities — especially in the fall — were closed to spectators, including students trying to document events for the yearbook.
Pep rallies didn’t happen. Music and drama performances were called off. Clubs barely met. Those annual elementary school visits to campus, which usually provide cute pictures and quotes, didn’t materialize.
“We just can’t cover it at that point,” noted Cambell Brown, Freedom’s sports editor.
More spreads about individuals and what they do outside school, for one thing.
“Last week, we did a story on a student who collects blankets for the less fortunate,” said Tori Foltz, editor of Seminole High’s newspaper, who has produced several stories for the yearbook.
That angle requires students to share contact information. Those taking classes remotely could be particularly hard to find. But the yearbook staffers wanted to include as many students as possible, regardless of where they sat.
Susan McNulty, the faculty sponsor for Mitchell High’s yearbook, said only about a quarter of students in the Trinity school provided social media handles and email addresses. That didn’t stop her staff from reaching out through classroom chats and other activities.
And some things did take place, albeit in different formats.
Freedom High’s homecoming, for instance, lacked a game and a dance. But spirit week still happened, a court got named, and a movie on the lawn drew students for a socially distanced celebration.
That all made for a nice, but smaller, set of photos than the usual homecoming.
The upshot was a chance to reimagine the yearbook, which for these three schools will be dozens of pages smaller than in previous years.
Mitchell’s Stampede staff said they used the opportunity to shed some “superficial” themes, as Misemer put it, and pay more attention to substantial issues that students faced.
At Seminole, the Warrior team dropped its previous thematic approach, which centered on pages for groups, activities and classes. They turned to a chronological format and looked to create something more like a large magazine, filled with full stories, bigger photos and bolder colors. That fostered a closer relationship between the newspaper and yearbook.
“I had the freedom to be more creative,” editor-in-chief Conway said.
Most schools have to get final work to the publishers right around spring break in mid-March. That gives them time to add late events — the Hillsborough school district recently gave permission for music and drama performances to occur, so Freedom’s Glory staff anticipated shooting photos right up to the moment they hit send.
“It’s definitely been a bit hectic, a bit more so this year,” Kyla Hoffbauer said.
Anything to make the content as inclusive as possible, said her sister, Becca.
“Our book isn’t about corona,” she said. “It’s about Freedom during this time.”
Despite the hurdles, the students stressed how happy they were to provide insights into a year that still was better than many others across the nation have endured.
“We’ve been fortunate this year to have a more normal school than other schools, definitely other students,” said Sophia Henges, Mitchell High’s co-editor-in-chief. “We’re lucky that we get to see each other every day, face to face.”
One big question remains: Will they get to spend time in school with friends in that time-honored tradition of yearbook signing day?
“We’re not really sure if that’s going to happen yet,” said Dan Sidwell, Freedom’s yearbook faculty sponsor. “We don’t really plan too far out, because we can’t.”