How Do You Make a Yearbook for an Online School Year?

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Without school pictures do yearbooks even exist?

Without school pictures do yearbooks even exist? spxChrome/Getty Images

It was March 11. Robert Eagle Staff Middle School sent its staff and students home early. Kathy Saxon, a Language Arts teacher and yearbook advisor at REMS, expected to come back in two weeks. That way she and her students could finish the yearbook they’d already mapped out.

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“They said at first we were going to stay home for a while,” Saxon laughed. “Then they said, ‘Actually, you’re going to stay there forever.'”

The entire second half of the year was thrown out the window. The student play couldn’t be photographed because it never happened. Same with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Saxon, now without a student staff, scrambled for content. She got permission to send out a robocall to parents (“You know what that is right?” she asked me) asking them to send pictures of their kids doing remote work, just their kids in general, anything. Saxon didn’t get much back.

Christina Tannert, a music teacher and yearbook advisor at Seattle Girls’ School, had the same experience. She worked double-time to get a yearbook made but there were no pictures. She got the same Zoom screenshot from parents over and over. Some parents didn’t know how to take a screenshot and sent pictures of Zoom grids taken with their phones. “We did have one of those make it in the book,” Tannert said remorsefully.

Seattle Public Schools has a standing $250,000+ agreement with Herff Jones, a yearbook vendor, for this year’s books. Will the 2020-2021 yearbook happen? It isn’t a matter of whether books get published but what will be in them. As it stands, school pictures are up in the air. Can a yearbook even exist without school pics? How do you capture a digital school year in print?

Finding content is stressing teachers out. To fill yearbook pages, students and parents need to send in pictures. “In my experience, middle schoolers love taking pictures of themselves,” Saxon said. She was baffled by how few she received in her yearbook SOS last spring. Saxon wrote off the lackluster response as students feeling burnt out from the new pandemic reality. “Maybe it’ll be different now.”

“It’s the last priority,” Saxon said about the yearbook, “but at the same time I don’t want to forget it.” For Saxon, it’s mostly sentimental. She wants students to be able to look back and reflect on their time during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when their lives and traditions—holidays, handshakes, and even yearbooks—were upended.

As an archivist at SPS, Meaghan Kahlo stores SPS yearbooks dating back to the early 1910s. She’s expecting that museums will come to the archives looking for pandemic-era yearbooks. Kahlo said that yearbooks are one of the only ways that the SPS archives store student work and voices.

The yearbooks from this past school year are already historic records, Kahlo expects. (Schools have yet to send them to her because they have bigger things to worry about, apparently.) Traditional yearbook rituals like swapping books with friends and signing them by hand couldn’t happen last year because of social distancing rules. Tannert said her school provided a link to each student where other students could “sign” their yearbook.

“They weren’t super excited” about the virtual signing, Tannert said. She compared it to the difference in receiving a handwritten letter versus receiving an email. “It doesn’t feel the same. We were missing that personal piece.” Something about writing “HAGS” on a blank Facebook wall provided by your school just hits different, I guess.

Physical paper products are easier for archivists, Kahlo explained. Paper can last thousands of years. “That touch, that physicalness is very important,” Kahlo said. About yearbooks, she commented that signing was “important” for students to “make that connection and to make it a unique book for each student.”

I told her about the digital signing solution Tannert mentioned.

“That’s another indication of how we’re separated by this event,” Kahlo said about the pandemic. “These are the different layers of significance that will be revealed as time goes on.”

For now, teachers like Tannert and Saxon are trying to approach the new year and the new yearbook as normally as possible. Saxon’s students from last year are already committed to the yearbook cause, but she doesn’t know if she can take in any newcomers. There’s so much to learn, she said, and she doesn’t know how new kids will pick up the skills without in-person tactile instruction.

Still, a yearbook will be produced. It’s just no one knows what it will look like.

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