“Westchester memes is how people know what’s going on,” Quinn Muller said. She’s 14 and lives in Sleepy Hollow, in Westchester County.
She, and many of her peers in towns just north of New York City, are using local meme pages as their news source for updates about the new coronavirus.
In particular, Instagram accounts in and about New Rochelle, a city in the county, have been posting a mix of photos, videos and screen shots from in and around the containment zone that was put in place on Tuesday in response to a cluster of more than 50 cases in the area.
The students, from several different schools and towns in the area, said they use these accounts to crowdsource on-the-ground updates, as opposed to the information they receive from parents and school administrators.
Wesley Smith, 14, an eighth-grader in New Rochelle, said that while he and other middle schoolers have not gotten direct emails from their school districts, he has been able to read emails sent to parents and teachers about the virus because they’ve been documented on the New Rochelle high school meme pages.
The pages are often where students say they learn things first. “I had no idea about the quarantine thing in Wykagyl” — a community in New Rochelle — “until I saw it on Westchester memes,” said Janelle Lopez, 16, who lives in New Rochelle. “My friends are like, ‘Did you see what was on Westchester Memes or New Ro memes?’”
Julian Herbert, 15, who lives inside the New Rochelle containment zone, said that @NRHSmeme was “one of the first ways I learned we were out of school for two weeks and the first way I found out about the containment zone.”
New Rochelle-specific meme pages like @NRHSmeme, @newrotrash and @newro.memes, all run by local high school students, have served as a lifeline for kids, many confined to their houses. Larger, county-specific accounts, the most popular being @Westchestermemes2.0, allow students from all high schools in the Westchester area to connect.
@Westchestermemes2.0 is documenting every school closure on Instagram Stories and answering questions from students in direct messages and through Instagram’s “questions” feature. @NRHSmeme is posting emails distributed to parents related to the virus to Instagram Stories, as well as information on school rescheduling and town news. New accounts, like @NewRochelleMemes, have cropped up, specifically to spread jokes and information to fellow students about the virus.
Nearly all students who run the high school meme accounts remain anonymous to avoid the inevitable harassment and scrutiny that comes with being in charge of a popular page. New Rochelle-specific accounts are run by kids in various grades at New Rochelle High School, aged 14 to 17; @Westchestermemes2.0 is run by a group of five high school students spread across the county.
High school meme accounts post around the clock, or at least whenever their young administrators are awake. The content on the pages is a mix of their own photos and screen shots and submissions from the thousands of middle and high school students who follow them. For the most part, they source news from social media.
“I don’t learn current events from the news, I see it on Instagram or TikTok,” said a 15-year-old administrator of @Westchestermemes2.0.
Quinn Muller compared following the pages with watching a late night show or something akin to “The Daily Show.” Mostly, followers are there to laugh, but they end up absorbing news along the way. The information resonates because it’s written by their peers, not school administrators and other adults.
“When schools give out information it’s very long and one-sided,” said Kayla Egan, 15, a founder of @memesofGHS, a high school meme page in Greenwich, Conn. “A high school meme account offers a two-sided way of communication where students can give their opinions too. We are students so we know what people are curious about relating to the issues, like coronavirus.”
The comment section of some pages has also become a place to organize collective action. Students who follow the New Rochelle high school meme page designed a campaign to solicit a stronger response to the outbreak from school administrators, banding together to send a letter to the school.
Katia Michals, 15, and Kayla Egan, who are both sophomores at Greenwich High School, a short drive from New Rochelle, are using their meme page, @memesofghs, to promote a Change.org petition to allow student athletes to still compete in state championships, despite the virus.
Coping with the coronavirus outbreak has taken a mental toll, according to many kids in the New York metro area. Several students said they feel responsible for keeping their parents healthy. “When I get home, I wash my hands immediately and change my clothes, I don’t want to get my parents sick because I don’t think they could handle it,” Quinn said.
Before schools closed in New Rochelle, students were stuffing their backpacks with huge boxes of tissues, extra soap to wash their hands with, and wiping down their desks with Clorox wipes. The administrator of @NRHSmeme said the account tries to give a voice to this shared anxiety. “I try to post reactions and thoughts and feelings that a lot of kids in New Rochelle are having,” said the administrator, who wanted to remain anonymous.
Administrators of local meme pages said their submissions have spiked since the coronavirus outbreak. Everyone wants their coronavirus TikTok or meme to be featured to gain maximum clout.
“We’re just now starting to think about content we can make,” said Eri Lopez, 14, of New Rochelle. “It’s a cool thing to be featured on these meme pages. It’s similar to getting on the For You page on TikTok.” He himself, however, has stayed out of the fray. So far he’s only posted one thing about the virus to Snapchat.
Students who run the meme pages have avoided posting health advice aside from C.D.C.-recommended guidelines on hand washing. Because they’re humor pages, they don’t generally fact check the information coming in, but they do review the profile of the person who submits it. So far, though, none of the pages have been accused of spreading misinformation.
At midnight on Wednesday, students from Eastchester, Yorktown and other districts all joked and bonded in the comment section of @Westchestermemes2.0. One teenager shared that his family friend had contracted the virus. Another student speculated on whether her high school in Croton-on-Hudson would close.
The high school meme accounts “pull us all together,” said Eva Winston, 17, of New Rochelle. “Westchester itself has become so iconic through the coronavirus, we can all bond in a weird way.”