Spread of COVID-19 in New York ends senior publications editors’ ‘dream’ trip to the Big Apple to accept newspaper, yearbook awards

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A screenshot of the March 6 announcement from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association about its decision to cancel its national journalism convention and March 20 awards ceremony at Columbia University in New York. The Accolade and Helios student publications had been named Crown winners last October — the only Orange County journalism programs to have earned such a distinction — for work produced in the 2018-2019 school year.

Nevya Patel

Senior Michelle Buckley said it would have been “one of the best moments of my senior year.”

Another senior, Kaylee Kim, called it a “reward for all of my passion and hard work for the last three years.”

Buckley and Kim aren’t describing their prom or graduation or Grad Nite — all traditional 12th-grade events that have been nixed because of the growing concerns over the novel coronavirus.

They were describing what could have been an all-expense paid trip of their lifetime to the Big Apple of New York City.

Sunny Hills’ Accolade newspaper and Helios yearbook programs were the only Orange County publications tapped for a national award from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association [CSPA] this school year for work produced in the previous school year. The CSPA announcement came on Halloween via social media.

Buckley, this year’s editor-in-chief of The Accolade,  said she approached principal Allen Whitten in November to see if it would be possible for them to attend the March 18-20 CSPA convention in New York that culminates with the awards ceremony on the last day.

The CSPA also sent a personal letter around the same time to principal Allen Whitten inviting him to attend the convention and Crown awards ceremony at Columbia University in New York. 

Though Whitten was unable to go, he received approval in January from Fullerton Joint Union High School District officials to fund the East Coast trip.

Besides Buckley, Kim and Hur, the all-expense paid trip would include seniors Hannah Yi and Alex Park — The Accolade’s managing editor and web editor, respectively.

The Accolade adviser Tommy Li and Helios adviser Lindsay Safe would also accompany them as their chaperones.

None but Li has ever traveled to “The City That Never Sleeps.”

“To be able to go to somewhere like New York and accept an award we worked hard for would have been a dream,” said Buckley, who was a co-entertainment editor last school year and has been on staff since her sophomore year. “Unfortunately, this was one of those dreams that did not come true.”

The Accolade editor-in-chief was referring to a March 6 email sent to Li and Safe informing them of the CSPA’s 96th annual Convention’s cancellation because of the spread of COVID-19, which eventually hit New York the most with 313,000 confirmed cases and 18,909 as of May 3. 

In consideration of coronavirus guidelines regarding large scale events, airline travel, hotel lodging and use of mass transit to get around New York City and reach the Columbia University campus where all convention sessions would be held, the decision was made to cancel the Convention for only the second time since it began in 1925,” wrote Edmund Sullivan, the CSPA’s executive director.

Kim, who has been a part of the yearbook program for the past three years and was the copy editor on last year’s yearbook, said the news also dismayed her severely as it is her final year before graduation.

“I remember just being completely shocked at first,” she said about hearing the news during the yearbook period when the March 6 email was sent at 2:26 p.m. “Both Olivia and I kind of just sat there in disbelief, and I started crying because I was so so sad and angry at the current situation.”

Hur, who was the yearbook’s academics section editor last year, shared a similar feeling of grief.

“We were really sad that day when we found out in class and could barely focus on our work,” she said. “But over time, I just came to accept it. It’s devastating that we can’t go, but the situation is very serious, and I’ve come [to] recognize that it’s probably better for our safety and others.” 

Their adviser can sympathize with what her editors went through.

“I was disappointed because I was really looking forward to the convention and seeing New York for the first time,” Safe said.

Besides attending the convention’s journalism or yearbook-related workshops, Li had made plans for everyone to get a tour of The New York Times building, where former Accolade editor-in-chief and Class of 2009 alumna Patricia Lee now works at.

Soon after the March 6 cancellation announcement, Li offered an alternative event to his top senior editors:

So if the three of you still want to get together with your families and me for lunch at a New York-style restaurant to watch the video presentation of the awards, let me know,” he wrote in a Slack message at 3:24 p.m.

That plan never came to fruition because of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home orders and declaration of restaurants to shut down its dine-in services.

“I really don’t know what else I can do to make this up to my top editors,” Li said. “I was disappointed for this missed opportunity to see them interact with each other outside a classroom environment; I was also quite confident we would have returned from this trip refreshed and energized to produce our last two print issues of the school year.”

Buckley and Yi were also tasked by Li to narrow down which Broadway show and tourist spots they wanted to check out — excursions that they would have to pay for.

“I honestly blamed the virus,” Buckley said. “This definitely would have been one of the best moments of my senior year and one of my lasting memories of being on The Accolade.”

Though some of these seniors found a way to cope with the heartbreaking news and the disappointment over not attending the event, others are slowly recovering with the help of loved ones.

“I was really bummed out that our opportunity to go on an all-expense-paid trip to New York was canceled,” said Yi, who was an assistant feature editor last year and like Buckley has been on staff since her sophomore year. “But after talking it out with the other EICs and my [older] sisters, they helped me realize that this wasn’t the end of the world and that I’ll always have other opportunities like this if I work my way up just as hard.”

A virtual awards ceremony held during spring break revealed that the CSPA gave last year’s Helios yearbook — which had not received an award since its last Silver Crown in 2013 — its highest honor of a Gold Crown plaque while the six print issues from last year’s Accolade that were submitted for judging earned a Silver Crown plaque. The only other time the school newspaper had won a Crown award was in 2006, earning a Silver Crown.

Though both publications plan to compete again to be considered a Crown winner next school year, neither is guaranteed a nomination and if either does get one, it’s also not guaranteed that the district would allow Whitten to fund another all-expense paid trip for another group of top editors.

Nevertheless, The Accolade seniors are still hoping for the best for next year’s staff and want to continue working hard for the rest of this school year for their award-winning program.

“I’m going to continue to make sure that our website is active and filled with a lot of good articles,” Yi said. “I hope that we are nominated once again as a Crown winner and hope that the next EICs will be able to visit New York and attend the CSPA events.”

While online stories are still being posted on The Accolade website, Helios had to adjust to its home environment since school was closed after March 13 to complete some remaining parts of the yearbook and its entire supplement. 

The downside with its supplement is that yearbook staffers had to replace it with new ideas since they could not cover their usual topics such as spring sports and events such as prom.

After brainstorming and some damage control, the yearbook staffers were able to finalize new spreads in its supplement and complete a book that they were content with and, hopefully, worth winning another Crown award.

“A book is only good if it’s unique, and if it really tells the story of the students and of the year,” Kim said. “We’re doing the best we can to make a book we’re proud of, so we can only hope that we get good results for this one, too.”