Best of the States


Inside the reopening debate: Local school boards face ‘impossible’ decisions


The idea: Take a deep dive into how one school district is dealing with reopening amid the pandemic. South Carolina reporter Jeffrey Collins did just that – but it wasn’t easy.

Several districts rebuffed his efforts to gain behind-the-scene access. Then he came up with another approach – start from the outside and work his way inside. The Rock Hill school board had what Collins sought: meetings online, a board with differing views but civil discussions, and a district facing a variety of issues, from top-notch athletic programs to special education to plenty of students on school buses.

Collins Typewritten Notes Crtnrot
Notes. Lots of notes. – Courtesy Jeffrey Collins

Collins watched more than a dozen hours of board meetings. He took notes,lots of notes. That work helped him convince officials to cooperate by showing he understood fully what they faced. Collins had so much material he did a handwritten story outline to ensure he covered everything. He also shot photos and video throughout the reporting.

Collins and South Desk Deputy Director Janelle Cogan honed the text,making the school board the main character,developed through its members. While firmly rooted in one place, the story showed the universal nature of the challenges.

Said Noreen Gillespie,deputy manager for U.S. news: “There have been several moments during the pandemic that we’ve asked our team to ‘go there.’ To a contact tracer,to a hospital. To a vaccine happening. This was another case of that – get inside a school district. (Collins) took the challenge and knocked it out of the park,getting access usually not afforded at all,and even then,usually to a local outlet.” The story was used by customers such as Yahoo,MSN and The New York Times. It garnered thousands of page views and impressive reader engagement time.

And if that wasn’t enough, Collins also had a gift to news junkies – a step-by-step Twitter thread on how the package came together:

For finding a way to delve into a local school board’s deliberations,and thus providing insight into conversations happening nationally, Collins wins this week’s Best of the States.

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