Documentary storytelling captures the astounding impact of public schools in the pandemic

On March 14, 2020, Governor Roy Cooper announced the closing of public schools across the state of North Carolina. Within hours of the announcement, a team mobilized from Guilford County Schools led by Superintendent Dr. Sharon Contreras. In Guilford County, nearly 70,000 students from kindergarten through high school attend 126 schools in urban, suburban and rural areas of the Piedmont. Faculty and staff knew that “unprecedented” would not even begin to cover the breadth of challenges they would be facing in the coming weeks and months.

By the end of that first weekend, a media briefing aired with Dr. Contreras at the microphone. Guilford County Schools became one of the first districts in the nation to develop and deploy a response plan, prioritizing student access to the nutrition and technology necessary for successful at-home learning for an incredibly diverse population of students and families. 

“We are changing 385 years of public-school history in less than a week. This is a massive undertaking that will require patience and perseverance on the part of everyone involved.”
– Dr. Sharon Contreras, Superintendent, Guilford County Schools 

Across the country, attention turned to the district, as the community hungered for more guidance in the midst of a crisis that no one could have ever guessed would arrive at their schools.

Just before school doors shuttered and laptops lit up like fireflies in homes from High Point to Whitsett, Tigermoth Creative had kicked off a partnership with Guilford County Schools to provide communications and marketing support. With the district in crisis — like all districts across the nation and the world — the timing for bringing on a communications partner was critical.

Each day, as our own children logged onto Canvas for virtual learning, the Tigermoth team logged onto Zoom to meet with GCS communications staff:

  • We strategized how to capture the district’s multifaceted responses to the crisis our community faced. 
  • For weeks and months, we worked together in the trenches to tackle and adapt to new challenges and daily needs. 
  • We mobilized photographers and videographers to go into the field, producing printed materials, social media and web content to supplement district PR. 
  • We brought in collaborators to help us scale and be nimble as storytelling opportunities arose.
  • We learned and evolved alongside our clients in the moment — our specialty! — while also focusing on long-term strategic communications.

Months later, as daily crises waned, we turned our attention to district positioning: People had to know about the incredible efforts by our local school district to take care of our students and their families in a previously unimaginable situation.

On our minds: How do we help a community understand everything that happened beyond the edges of a laptop screen? How do we help the public see what a district of this size had to do without any precedent — feeding families, supplying technology, advocating for Internet access and mitigating learning loss?

By this point, we had months of content from our pandemic communications work. Our vision to position the district within the context of their extraordinary year culminated in an 8-minute documentary-style video. David (director of videography) worked with Lyda (creative director) to develop a narrative structure around the themes that arose during the year — community, connection, change. They wove together interviews, b-roll, text slides and still images with support from Chris (director of photography), Andrea (director of creative writing) and Rebecca (client services director). 

The end result is dynamic, curious and hopeful — a video that reveals the resilience of one of the nation’s largest school districts over the course of one year in just 8 minutes and 17 seconds. Leveraging a documentary style allowed us to give statistics and quotes time to “breathe” on screen and hold a place for the quiet moments that fill the frame with emotion. A skilled interviewer, Dave asked real questions — not knowing what the answer would be — and let teachers and students express their thoughts and feelings about their pandemic experiences. Hearing from them directly, without a script, and seeing them in their element invites the community to understand Guilford County Schools as the compassionate and innovative leader they proved themselves to be. 

When revisiting the video, we find ourselves drawn to the young student at 3:00. “This is where I grew up,” he says. “This, right here, is the spot” — he pauses — “where I grew up.” So much emotion is held in that pause — we feel it too. Would this moment have been in a 30-second video? Probably not. But the beauty of the documentary style is that it lets moments like these shine, enriching an already remarkable story about what a school district and a community can do in times of crisis.

Sarah Leck is a Project Manager at Tigermoth Creative. Born and raised in North Carolina, Sarah is a writer, photographer and expert thrifter. One day, she would like to run a summer camp and travel the country by rail.