Metro Atlanta students capture pandemic life in yearbooks

The yearbook staff at Milton High School already faced a monumental undertaking to document their school’s 100th anniversary.

Each year, students create a thick, photo-filled keepsake, and the centennial added historical heft to the task.

When the coronavirus hit, the job became tougher and the stakes got higher.

“In my opinion, this is our most important book we’ve ever made," said Ben Williams, a senior and the yearbook’s head editor.

He and other staffers want to show what the 2020-2021 school year looked like, through the lens of a pandemic. Here’s the struggle: Much of it isn’t happening at school.

At Milton and other metro Atlanta schools, the year began virtually. Many clubs and events that pack the yearbook’s pages went online or on hiatus. And even when Fulton County Schools began reopening buildings last month, a quarter of Milton’s 2,277 students opted to stay home.

“The kids have stories,” said Jordan Kohanim, an English teacher and yearbook adviser at Milton. “They get up every day and something important happens to them, and our job is to capture that. It doesn’t matter if it’s in person or at home.”



One of the nation’s big yearbook publishers, Jostens, said it’s not seeing a decrease in interest from schools during the pandemic. The company launched new digital tools to help schools adapt.

Schools have rescheduled picture days. Yearbooks are soliciting more submitted photos— while trying to avoid low-quality screenshots or edited selfies that don’t uphold journalistic standards. Students are assembling photo spreads that show at-home work stations, Halloween costumes and Netflix nights.

Williams found an upside in the upheaval. Brief interviews with students in the cafeteria morphed into longer, more personal phone calls.

At first, students returned to Milton just one day a week before expanding this month to full-time, in-person classes. Because of smaller class sizes, social distancing and masks, photos convey a different feeling.

“We are taught when taking pictures to try to capture emotion, and everyone is emotionless,” Williams said.

The phased-in return meant only a handful of students were present in some classes early on, and the teacher also had to talk via computer to their classmates at home. That made it hard to capture lively images.



Staffers are trying to take pictures as quickly as possible because they don’t know if the school may be forced to close again, said Milton senior Nicole Hernalsteen, a copy editor.

“It is a little disappointing because I definitely like to see the book being really interactive, but also it’s a cool opportunity to be on the staff that gets to make a book at this time,” she said.



At Peachtree Ridge High School in Gwinnett County, yearbook adviser Natalie Bahun and her staff plan to include images of teachers' virtual classrooms with cartoon avatars. They’ll also publish schedules comparing in-person to virtual learning.

Only one of her yearbook students returned to in-person classes, so Bahun coordinates online with editors and staffers. She urges students to reach outside their friend circles so all students are represented in the yearbook. She’s trying to bring positivity to the pages.

“The whole point isn’t to be this sad, dismal publication,” she said.

Kristin Boyer of the Brookhaven-based K. Boyer Photography takes pictures at about 15 public and private schools. She’s shot photos of children wearing masks and also without, while remaining at least six feet away.

“We don’t touch the children. We don’t fix their hair. We don’t fix their clothing,” she said. “We Lysol things between classes.”

At a DeKalb County elementary school that has yet to reopen, she’s scheduled several days for outdoor student pictures by appointment.

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North Atlanta High School won’t resume in-person learning until January, at the earliest. That means Jack Stenger’s yearbook class, which usually begins in the fall, will get a much later start.

They’ve extended deadlines, and by the time the yearbook class begins, he’s hopeful his students can return to the building. If not, “we are going to have to think of something,” he said.



Flipping through decades of old Milton books reminded Kohanim and her students of how much they have in common with past classes. That includes a yearbook, even if it’s produced during a pandemic.

“I feel like we are just bleeding traditions. Kids are kids, and school is school, and traditions are what they are. But the spirit of this endeavor of education, of classes and yearbook is alive and well," she said.