Pets of the Pandemic: How a COVID Chronicles Column Took Off at Wantagh High School

Over the course of the pandemic, many of us have become attached to our pets. There has been a boom in the number of pet adoptions as more and more people have sought out ways to stay happier at home. Our pets became an excuse to take a walk. They made mealtimes more entertaining. My dog certainly made fetch happen. 

Inspired by Bailey 

For me, my dog served a special purpose. Last year, I was diagnosed with limbic encephalitis, an incredibly rare disease, and spent two weeks in a medically-induced coma. After that experience, I needed an emergency tracheotomy at Mt. Sinai Hospital. To add an additional stressor, a pandemic broke out. Throughout this experience, my dog, Bailey, was by my side. She provided many needed laughs and cuddles during my recovery and truly lived up to the title of “man’s best friend.” 

Bailey was a spur of the moment decision; we had originally gone to North Shore Animal League looking for a different dog. The minute I saw her face, I fell in love.  She has big brown eyes and a chocolate nose. She looks a lot like a Muppet. She has not been an easy dog; she becomes very anxious around strangers and her anal glands can be a little active. She is one of the most loving creatures in the world, however. We are not sure about what breed of dog she is, but we think she is a Hungarian Vizsla, a breed that has a reputation for being Velcro dogs. I was so grateful, however, to have her stuck to me throughout last year. 

When I first returned home from rehab, one of the happiest memories I have is of her running towards me. She must have known that I wasn’t completely myself, because she stopped in front of me and was extra gentle with her greeting. She usually throws her whole body at us when we come home from work, but she instead slowed down and just rolled on the ground. It was the happiest moment I’d had in a few weeks. 

As weeks progressed, I was not getting better and the emergency tracheotomy was required at Mt. Sinai. The trach was a truly horrific experience. In order to keep the mucus from building up, my dad or my mom would have to suction it out; I was too squeamish to do it on my own. Bailey did not understand what was happening and would growl during the entire experience. She just wanted to protect her human. Eventually, the trach came out and she became a good reason to go on walks and to get back in shape. She loves to play fetch, and we would spend a long time in the backyard chasing after balls. She was my best friend during quarantine and my recovery. 

Inspiration Becomes Action!

I returned to work this fall as the new Journalism II teacher, after taking over for our long-time adviser. I wanted to make sure that we covered the pandemic, both the good and the bad elements. For me, my dog was definitely a good part and I assumed that that was true for my students and coworkers as well. When I decided our program should create a column dedicated specifically to COVID coverage, I knew I wanted to feature stories of both student and teacher pets. I created a Google Form asking for submissions and the response was incredibly positive. 

After the first call for submissions, a wave of replies came back. People were so excited to show off their dogs and cats (and in some cases, iguanas and snakes). With every reply from my coworkers, there was always a message thanking me for starting this column. Students sent in stories about their pets failing puppy school or dropping out of seeing eye dog programs. There were also stories about rescuing animals from squalid living conditions. 

Teachers recorded the funny antics of their pets, from a dog using the backyard as her own personal racetrack to a rescue cat that went on to adopt the fantastic name of Ethel Spike Jones.  One of my co-teachers sent in a picture of her cats. Another co-teacher sent me pictures of his bulldog and then the latest addition to his family, a French bulldog. 

Students eagerly wrote about new adoptions; they started turning their cameras on more so that I could say hello to their dogs. One of my staff members adopted a St. Bernard puppy, and she sent me updates every day about the puppy’s antics. Another journalism student shared stories about her cats. 

This wasn’t limited to teachers and students. Administrators also sent in funny stories about how their pets kept them company (and kept them sane) during the pandemic, even if they interrupted Zoom calls. 

I soon branched out beyond our Journalism program by using the column in my Writing Lab course; I was able to get reluctant writers to share stories about their pets. I would then send the articles to their parents, and they were always so excited to see the work of their teenagers. It gave these students, who typically struggle with writing, a chance to be published and for their parents to feel connected to their high schoolers’ learning.

Our high school is located across the street from a pet shelter and Bideawee Memorial Park, which is a pet cemetery. We have also included articles about the adoptable pets at the shelter in our newspaper. Our volunteer club has worked closely with the shelter during the pandemic to collect toys for their animals. We were so excited to include an article in the paper by the president of this club about his dog, Buddy. The WARR Club even decorated their donation boxes with pictures of our pandemic pets.

Just recently, we have begun a cookbook to raise money for Last Hope Shelter, which is connected with Bideawee Memorial Park, and Long Island Harvest. In just one day we were able to collect $370. In addition to recipes, we have included all of our Pets of the Pandemic articles, thus bringing together the two themes of our cookbook. 

Every story shared with our paper and cookbook has been special. I have learned more about my coworkers and my students than I ever thought I would. This column has been a really entertaining way to help our school stay together even when we are apart. Our collection has grown to the point where, to paraphrase a movie with an animal no one will ever keep as a pet, we are going to need a bigger (bulletin) board.

What we have been able to do at our high school is something that you can possibly modify for your own school’s journalism program. We wish you the best if you choose to take this path and hope you will share what you create, as well as your tips and tricks for implementation with