Photo by Engin Akyurt via Unsplash


Back to school anxiety hits advisers especially hard

Sarah Verpooten watched as a parent at an Aug. 3 school board meeting advocated for returning to in-person classes. He was speaking into the microphone when he pulled down his mask to wipe his nose, pulled his mask back up, and continued speaking.

That meeting resulted in a “very surprising vote” to return to in-person classes for the fall semester at Lake Central High School in St. John, Indiana, where Verpooten teaches journalism classes. After watching an adult improperly wear a mask, Verpooten wondered how she would be able to enforce that her students wear masks in class.

In addition to teaching challenges like having to disinfect classrooms between classes, and the financial burdens of COVID-19 on student media, many advisers are also worried about their safety and their families. Verpooten and her husband are both teachers, and have decided not to see their parents in the upcoming months for fear of accidentally transmitting the virus. She also has to find a new childcare arrangement, since her parents used to watch their child while they worked.

Verpooten told our reporter "We’re not handling it well. None of us are."

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So, to all the advisers coping with incredible burdens right now, SPLC sees you and we're grateful for all you do. We as an organization are here to support you however we can.

Here are some tools you may find useful:

Resources for Advisers
SPLC has a wide collection of resources just for journalism educators, including answers to your top student media law questions, classroom tools, tips for working with administrators, strategies for responding to censorship or threats to your job, and more.
See more
Resources for Teaching Remotely
Turn these tools into media law lesson plans in a snap. We've got presentations, quizzes, and recommended reading. Or, book an SPLC expert to give a 40-minute lesson on the legal topic of your choosing using our Virtual Speakers Bureau.
See more
Financial Strategies for Student Media
SPLC just launched a series of resources to help you fight budget cuts, bolster revenue, seek donations and more. Use these strategies to make your publication pandemic-proof.
See more

Q: As students and teachers return to school during the COVID19 pandemic, can we take and publish news photos of students/teachers — masked or unmasked — walking in a crowded school hallway.

Yes. It is long-established law that public school students have the right to engage in speech activities in school as long as their speech is lawful and non-disruptive. A photo such as this one, taken by a student at a public high school in Georgia this month and published widely over the Internet, is entirely lawful despite claims that it invaded student privacy. Students have no reasonable expectation of privacy while walking in a crowded school hallway and are generally fair game for student journalists. The same would be true for news photos taken in other clearly “public” areas of the school such as in a crowded lunchroom, gymnasiums or football fields during athletic events and most outdoor areas such as a student parking lot or school bus pickup area. Taking photos in private spaces (locker rooms, bathrooms, private offices, etc.) should not be done without prior permission from everyone who might be in the photo. Classrooms exist in a bit of gray zone and, except in cases where the photo is exceptionally newsworthy and obtaining prior consent cannot be reasonably accomplished in a timely manner, it is the SPLC’s recommendation that you generally err on the side of caution and obtain permission. 

Another excuse you might hear from school officials trying to justify a ban or censorship of such news photos is FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Student journalists are neither employees nor agents of the school and unlike teachers and other school officials are not subject to the limitations imposed by that federal law.

Finally, the issue of students returning to school during Fall 2020 — as the COVID19 pandemic continues mostly unabated in the U.S. — is highly newsworthy, a key defense to any invasion of privacy claim. While a school may attempt to enforce an existing school rule banning such photos, as long as you take them in in a lawful and non-disruptive manner, such a ban would be on legally thin ice, particularly for student media charged with covering school-related news. (To provide extra cover, students that do not work with student media may want to wait until they are off-campus, using their own equipment and social media accounts, to share their stories.) The Student Press Law Center encourages student journalists who are censored or threatened with punishment for documenting Back-to-School activities to contact our legal hotline

See previous Ask SPLC answers

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