It began with a simple question, a lifetime ago way back in August 2020: What's the best, truest way to tell the story of the children who will learn during the pandemic?
It ended, 10 months later, with a body of journalism that one editor called "a perfect time capsule of what education was like during COVID-19."
Learning Curve followed six families for a year from across New York state: Mount Vernon, Middletown, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Binghamton, Utica. We chose them because their children attended urban public school districts — giving them a common ground that might reveal shared challenges, such as transportation issues or high-speed Internet access.
And they chose us right back. But most importantly, they chose you.
These six families said yes, again and again and again, to our team of reporters and multimedia journalists, who visited their homes repeatedly to create nearly three dozen stories across the 10-month school year. They opened their doors and their laptops, and they agreed to show us the raw, unfiltered, sometimes painful realities of life, and they trusted us to get it right.
And those six families did all that, they told us, because they wanted you to feel less alone, to know that other kids and parents and families weren't by themselves in this often frustrating and sometimes frightening year. They trusted us journalists and they reached a hand into the void; they wanted you to grab on.
How amazing is that?
As Learning Curve's co-editor, along with Atlantic region deputy photo editor Carrie Yale, I told our journalists at the start of the project three key things:
That our primary job would be to report our subjects' stories with respect and empathy above all — that our families, adults and kids, should feel proud of their representation and participation in the project.
That they would learn and grow as journalists, doing the kind of immersive work that is an increasing luxury in our business, and that their work would build a level of trust and intimacy that only comes from deep, long-term reporting.
That because of taking our time and building that trust, we would be granted insight into the most vulnerable moments of our families' lives — and so would you.
And so, over the course of the year, we've seen our kids and their parents face stress, isolation, loneliness. We've seen the children adjust despite special circumstances and make their own choices about returning to school. We've seen the parents get new jobs, battle old demons, and above all bend their worlds around their children's lives time and again to help them thrive even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Because of these families and their willingness to share, we've witnessed the lasting toll of a felony conviction and a toxic living environment. We've seen the fear that blossoms when a mom has a stroke, far too young. We've seen COVID-19 tear through a family that took every precaution.
But we also saw hugs and kisses, sighs and silly dances, gently bickering siblings and determined parents with their eyes on the future.
We saw it all because the families wanted you to see. Because they trusted us to get it right.
Journalists are often accused of relying on officials for information, for only talking to "everyday" people to prove a point or to get grisly detail about a crime that's happened in their neighborhood. Learning Curve is part of a broader mission to showcase the real lives of real people in a way that prioritizes empathy and transparency so those voices ring as authentically to the people reading them as to the people granting us the permission to share them.
Learning Curve mom Zumarie Sepulveda, whose five children have attended public school in Rochester this year, said she's heard from others who read about her family's struggles this year.
"As this report went out to the community, we received a lot of words of encouragement and a lot of people coming up to us, and trying to help us and be there for us," she said. "So, I just have to say I'm grateful regardless of how everything happened, of how chaotic it happened. We managed to go through it, and I just want people out there to know that regardless of how hard things get, they can push through."
I asked my co-editor, Carrie Yale, to share her thoughts on the project. "Being able to send six of our visual journalists into the homes of six New York families as they navigated a school year like no other was a great honor," she told me. "These families graciously embraced the idea of being followed and photographed and allowed us to capture both joyful and challenging moments.
"Often a photographer has one assignment and moves on, so to be able to spend 10 months with one family, visiting regularly, provided our viewers with a feeling of knowing them and watching them grow throughout the year."
And during that time, our journalists formed profound bonds with our subjects. This may be the end of Learning Curve, but it may not be the last you hear about our families.
Poughkeepsie reporter Katelyn Cordero has spent the year capturing the struggles of Kendra Smith and her daughter, Diamond. To say telling their story is an honor, she told me, would be an understatement.
"Writing her story was an honor, but it also left me up at night hoping that I would do right by the woman who let down her walls and showed me everything," she said. "There's no doubt in my mind that Kendra's next chapter in life will be better than the last. I look forward to continuing to tell her story and watch as her and Diamond continue to grow their relationship together."
Learning Curve is the kind of journalism that changes hearts and lives — not just for our readers, but for our sources and even for our journalists.
We're grateful most of all for our families, and the hearts they the showed on their sleeves, but we're also grateful to you, the reader who supports this kind of journalism. As we move forward, I'd love your ideas on ways to intimately tell the extraordinary tales of anyone, any day who has a story to share.
When someone chooses us, trusts us, we commit to honoring that story with respect and integrity. Our communities and the stories they have to tell are the heart — unflinching, strong, and true — of what we do.
Kristen Cox Roby is the storytelling editor for New York and USA TODAY's Atlantic region. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KCRoby.