John Wilson, KSL TV

Children help historians document life during a global pandemic

By Sahalie Donaldson, KSL | Posted - May 24, 2020 at 8:31 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Schoolchildren are helping Utah historians record how the coronavirus pandemic has shaped their lives, information that will go on to teach future generations about life today.

Historians with the Utah Division of State History are asking students spanning grades K-12 to share their experiences living during COVID-19 — a request that has spurred memes, photos, and even thoughtful remarks highlighting the uncertainty of day-to-day life.

Curators have received over 100 submissions since the project kicked off a little over two weeks ago, according to Lisa Barr, Utah Division of State History historical collections curator.

“This is probably one of the biggest events of our lifetime. It’s an opportunity for us as an institution to capture that on a local level,” Barr said. “We have students as far north as Ogden down to Vernal, so you get these different responses based on where people live.”

The submissions will become part of a permanent historical collection kept by the Utah Division of State History and will likely be used for research, museum exhibits and social media posts in the years to come, according to the division’s website.

The division wanted to specifically capture students’ responses because of the unique time they are going through, giving them additional learning opportunities and the chance to chronicle their experiences in a way to show youth voices matter, Barr explained.

“Students are being taught to analyze primary sources in school,” Barr said. “This gives them an opportunity to create their own primary source that will be housed in an archive that the public can use.”

Information about the COVID-19 memory project, including questions written for elementary, junior high and high school students, can be found at the Utah Division of State History website. Barr said submissions will be open through the summer and there is a possibility the division will advertise again in the fall as the situation is ever shifting.

Questions on the elementary school questionnaire include inquiries about what the student misses most about school, how they are connecting with their class friends during the pandemic, whether they’ve stopped doing some of their in-person activities, and what’s changed the most at home in light of the pandemic.

Barr said many kids talk about missing their friends and teachers and express excitement about small things like sleeping in, but also share poignant challenges. She recalled one student who said they have ADHD and two parents who work full time outside of the house, which makes holding themself accountable for online school work challenging.

Many submissions showcase a great deal of thoughtfulness.

A 13-year-old wrote in their submission they want future generations to know it can be hard to be away from the world, but “I feel thankful that I haven’t had COVID-19 yet. I just finished ‘Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.’ I could find similarities between Anne and me, but also many differences. I kept on thinking of the many ways her life was harder than mine. It made me grateful that I was not in the situation she was in.”

Many report being excited at first when schools closed because they believed it would be like an extended spring break, but once they realized the cancellation was indefinite “they were pretty disheartened,” Barr said.

Along similar lines, a 12-year-old who submitted to the project said that as a sixth grader, “the hardest thing was knowing that I wouldn’t go to the same school as my best friends again.”

Barr noted it’s been interesting to see the range in experiences as some have found online school work more difficult, others easier.

“I’ve learned that I’m totally capable of doing things on my own, specifically schoolwork. When first starting online school I thought it would be impossible and that I would be incapable of doing it all on my own. But so far I’ve proven myself wrong,” wrote a 16-year-old.

Barr said as a historian, the best way to get people to understand why history matters is to make it personal. She believes the project gives kids a better understanding of what they learn in their history and social sciences classes.

“It seems like they want to be heard and they want their work to matter years from now,” Barr said.

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