As COVID-19 began to disrupt their world last year, staff members of the Whitehall Healthy Reporter like their counterparts at a dozen other elementary and middle school newspapers in the region — worked remotely to keep their community informed.

Student reporters interviewed physicians and mental health experts on Zoom, while others wrote first-person accounts and created illustrations about the pandemic’s impact on their lives. “I was just sad a lot of the time,” Jehiel Farrell wrote in the DePaul Healthy Trailblazer.

And when distributing printed copies of the student newspapers became impossible due to region-wide shutdowns, the content went all-digital.

“We’re a health news organization, and the pandemic is the biggest health news story in our kids’ lifetime,” said Marian Uhlman, the executive director of Healthy NewsWorks. The nonprofit journalism education program offers classes at 14 public, parochial, and private schools in the city, the suburbs, and South Jersey.

Students report for newspapers with names such as the St. Veronica Healthy Hero, the William Rowen Healthy Roar, and the Healthy Owl Times. Their content is also posted on the Healthy NewsWorks website (healthynewsworks.org), its “By Kids, for Kids” site (which also welcomes content submissions from kids everywhere), and on the organization’s YouTube channel.

Healthy NewsWorks also publishes an annual hardcover book showcasing student work; the 2021 volume is titled Doing the Undoable in a Pandemic.

‘I hope I can walk outside without wearing my mask and breathe the fresh air.’ — Jaxson Pointer, of the Enon Healthy Warrior

“We’ve helped the students report a story that’s important to them and to their communities during the pandemic,” Uhlman said. “Healthy NewsWorks has been a forum where they can ask questions that have a direct bearing on their lives.”

Launched with a single fifth-grade classroom at Hillcrest Elementary School in Upper Darby in 2003, the organization has since enabled more than 4,000 students in Philadelphia, Upper Darby, Norristown, and Camden to report, write, illustrate, and publish health-related news and feature stories.

“Our curriculum has been developed over many years with the participation of classroom teachers and our own staff and education consultants,” said Uhlman, a former Inquirer reporter. She co-founded Healthy NewsWorks with educator Susan Spencer in 2003.

The organization expects to serve 1,200 students this school year and in early December was one of 10 nonprofits in the Philadelphia area to receive $50,000 unrestricted grants from pharmaceutical and health care giant GlaxoSmithKline.

The company’s IMPACT awards aim to bolster the work of organizations focused on improving community health. The money will help fund the recent addition of several Camden parochial schools to the Healthy NewsWorks roster.

“They’re innovative,Linda Higginbotham, GSK’s community partnerships operations manager, said in an interview. “They measure what they do. They are well-run, and they are community centered.”

From its inception, Healthy NewsWorks has focused on teaching students to utilize traditional journalism’s tenets of factual accuracy, reliable sourcing, and clear messaging — fundamentals that have never been more essential than during the pandemic.

‘I really am looking forward to meeting up in person with people, not just on weird Zoom calls.’ — Biko Esters, of the Enon Healthy Warrior

Healthy NewsWorks arose from conversations between Uhlman and Spencer, who taught Uhlman’s daughter at Upper Darby’s Hillcrest Elementary School in the early 2000s. “What we wanted to do was make health reporting visible in schools in the same way the chorus or the band is visible,” Uhlman said.

“We were only going to do it if we could publish high-quality newspapers,” said Spencer, who has since retired. “We wanted to stress the importance of accuracy, and editing, and using legitimate [online] sites for research.

“We created press passes, and Marion got us [professional reporters] notebooks,” Spencer said. “And on the last page of the notebooks we put the 5 W’s.”

Exposing students to the “who, what, when, where, and why” concept goes hand-in-hand with teaching them how to determine whether a person is qualified to be quoted as an expert in a story involving health. Even kindergartners can understand a “what is a fact” lesson.

‘After the pandemic ... I want to travel the world and go on many trips because I’ve been locked up at home and never get to go anywhere anymore.’ — Maleah Dixon, of the Logan Healthy Eagle

Spencer and Uhlman also said the incentive effect of carrying a press pass, meeting a deadline, and especially, having a byline are not to be underestimated, even with very young students. And the literacy, composition, and other communications skills the program teaches are applicable elsewhere in a student’s school day, and beyond.

“Giving kids a platform to be heard, giving them a voice and [a chance to] be leaders in their school community is very empowering. Students with low self-esteem can really grow, and blossom,” said Mia Blitstein, program manager of Healthy NewsWorks.

Often, a student reporter will rise to the occasion, said Blitstein, citing a fifth-grader’s spring 2020 interview with Sandra Clark, vice president of news and civic dialogue at WHYY.

“He just nailed it,” Blitstein said. “He was thrilled.”

Morgan Washington-Leslie teaches fourth grade at the James Logan Elementary School in the Logan section of Philadelphia and uses the Healthy NewsWorks curriculum.

I’m excited for my students to learn a different genre of writing,” she said. “They’re analyzing, asking questions about what a medical term means and why they have to use it. I hear them struggle to say a medical term and then learn to say it so it rolls of their tongue.”

Washington-Leslie said the program offers students an opportunity “to write about something important to their families and communities, and help them understand how to be healthier.”

Said Shamon Rollins, whose daughter Serenity McGriff is a Logan fifth grader: “I knew she would be interested, because she loves to talk and she loves to write. It’s great when you see can see your child grow.”

Serenity, 10, said she was excited to interview doctors about the coronavirus at the beginning of the pandemic.

But her favorite part of being a reporter for the James Logan Healthy Eagle?

The byline.

“It was exciting to see my name on something I knew was going to reach a lot of people,” Serenity said.