Clayton State University archiving local COVID-19 experiences

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

When Americans look back at 2020, it might be remembered as much for the little challenges as the big ones, says Clayton State University archivist Feechi Hall, who this year launched a project aimed at capturing everyday stories of the pandemic.

Hall decided to take her children roller skating at a local park shortly after the nation was shut down because of COVID-19. Like a lot of parents, she wanted an activity that was safe and would get everyone out of the house.

The problem: every other parent had the same idea.

“All the outdoor activities that people in the past weren’t super into are now, because of the pandemic, being rediscovered,” Hall said. “So bikes and the roller skates I was trying to find were all flying off the shelves.”

Hall’s project, “Reflections on the COVID-19 Pandemic: Documenting Clayton State Community Experiences,” will act as a repository of how the coronavirus affected daily life in the south metro Atlanta community.

The effort is part of a larger state and national push by universities and historical institutions to examine the coronavirus impact. Participants include the University of Miami Libraries, the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Georgia State University the University of Georgia and the Athens-Clarke County Library.

Hall said archivists are looking for how residents adjusted to wearing masks at grocery stores, dealt with job losses or negotiated a house where parents and students were both at home during the day.

They also are seeking physical signs of pandemic life, such as recipes shared during shelter-in-place orders or the safety bulletins put up in office buildings to make sure visitors washed their hands and stood six-feet apart.

“This offers a truly larger understanding of a time in history when we’re dealing with something monumental,” she said. “We’re striving to preserve and share the stories of our academic community and our local community.”

Catherine Deering, a professor of psychology at Clayton State, contributed to the archive in an essay on the impact COVID-19 has had on teaching. She was working with seven students in a hands-on clinical practicum when the pandemic hit and everything switched to online learning.

“My biggest concern was the students were somehow being shortchanged and not having the opportunity to learn in the same way they were able to learn in the classroom,” Deering said.

But as the semester wore on, she saw the staff and student body acclimate and push hard to continue learning, despite the less than ideal circumstances.

“As educators we have to be flexible and try to make the most of the situation that we’re in,” she said. “The students also had the opportunity to rise to the occasion. I think that was the most inspiring part of writing my essay.”

In her personal life, the pandemic also has made it difficult to see her 91-year-old father, who lives in an assisted living facility. She has a weekly zoom call with him, but it’s not the same as being there, she said.

“He lives in another state so I am not near where he is,” she said. “That’s been the most painful part for me. To see him isolated.”

Hall said one of the biggest challenges has been communicating to the public what is of value to the project. It’s not just stories and reflection, but photographs of how residents spend their day or objects that are hallmarks of the time such as homemade sanitizers.

Also of value are signs that residents used during protests for racial justice, which coincided with the pandemic during the summer.

“I hope we not only capture the impact of the pandemic itself, but insights on the racial justice movement that has intersected the very interesting year of 2020,” she said.

She also notes that there is not a deadline to participate, in part because the pandemic’s story is still unfolding. Items can be submitted digitally by visiting Clayton State University Archives.

“We know it might take time to collect this information,” she said. “We are still in the pandemic. This is a long haul effort and not a sprint.”