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School Librarians Can Help During Crisis, But Some Fear Being Shut Out

At a time when their skillset is needed most, school librarians struggle to find the best way to stay connected and support overwhelmed students and staff.

April is School Library Month but instead of creating brilliant book displays and highlighting their contributions, school librarians across the country are struggling to find their place in remote learning forced by the coronavirus pandemic.

This is a situation prime for their expertise, but many find themselves frustrated and on the sidelines of administrative decisions and lesson planning.

“This is a time for librarians to shine,” an elementary school librarian from Massachusetts wrote in an email. “We are the masters of research and curating and organizing.

"I think we can really help."

If only they were given a seat at the table and would be allowed to contribute, she added with concern.

She was not alone. Afraid to use her name and school for fear of repercussions from her administration, the librarian took her worries and experience to a private Facebook group and found many share her frustration and professional anxiety.

Curating resources, working with technology, providing literacy and logistical support—all of these are a good school librarian’s wheelhouse. But early in the unexpected and rushed transition to remote learning, many found themselves out of the loop. Administrators and staff asked them to stop sending lists of resources or ideas. It was overwhelming, as classroom teachers struggled to figure out the basics and couldn’t handle another email or guide to using Google Meetings. Those without established relationships with classroom teachers were particularly at a loss, unable to breach the professional divide that now added physical distance.

Job cuts were already a concern in Washington, D.C., and other districts across the country. Many worry now that the lack of visibility and clear way to document their value during this crisis when it comes time to make budget decisions could leave them out of jobs.

As is often the case, school librarians reached out to each other. The hashtag #TLStrong has popped up on Twitter and in connection with a large virtual call where teacher librarians are checking in, sharing frustrations and solutions. Knowing they can help—students and fellow school librarians—they are talking to each other in districts and to colleagues across the country via social media.

For a glimpse of what they are doing across the country, elementary librarians in one Massachusetts district created a website of curated teacher resources, organized by subject. In a Texas district, librarians sat in on teacher team Zoom meetings to understand their needs and be able to respond to them, according to Carolyn Foote, who said they also created and distributed a flyer of ways they can help teachers. Librarians are also spending their time recording read-alouds, ensuring access to ebooks, moderating book discussions on Flipgrid or in Zoom sessions, handling IT issues and creating tech how-to videos for staff and students, assigning STEM/maker challenges, creating digital escape rooms, and, of course, curating resources. In cases where staff can access the school building, a few librarians have said they checked out books and delivered them to students’ homes. One private school librarian queried students about what they wanted to read and was spending his year’s budget ordering the books online and having them delivered to the kids.

Librarians who are also parents struggling through the new “homeschooling” have helpful insight.

“I am so frustrated with the endless stream of online resources that continues to fill my mailbox. I am ignoring most recommendations and sticking with the two emails each week that come from my children's teachers,” wrote Kate Eads, an elementary school librarian in Seattle, who is using her experience to influence her decisions as an educator. 

“I am going to do what I have learned is manageable by just attaching myself to classroom teacher emails,” she said. “My plan is to record myself reading a chapter book and embedding those files in the emails. I am asking that students listen to me reading to them while they color or do art, or while they are going to sleep. It takes any simple device, is screen-free, and is a way for me to connect.”

Connection is always part of the job description and, for some, it is the main role right now.

“Our school librarian has been functioning primarily as a source of comfort, particularly to our younger readers,” Julia Guthrie, a fourth grade teacher and the 2018 New Jersey non-public school teacher of the year, wrote in an email. “Our librarian has been recording stories for our students (with the publisher's permission, of course). As a parent, I can personally attest to the magic of having a familiar figure read to your child. My kids light up when a new video gets posted. It's such a testament to the power of books as a community builder. Right now, read-alouds (my amazing principal does them nightly as well) are a major part of what is keeping us together as a school.”

At the high school level, it can be even more difficult. School librarians don’t have regular time with students or designated curriculum in a lot of schools. Some are reaching out to help with research projects or access to books. In places that don’t have a school librarian, some teachers have reached out to the public library.

“I was able to get in touch with the public library in town and one of the incredible librarians has helped distribute digital library cards to the students,” Sarah Mulhern Gross, a high school English teacher. “We pull students from the entire county, so some students already had their own library cards, but 100 students and teachers received digital cards this week. It has been a lifesaver!”

Through it all, the issues of inequity in education are becoming more apparent. Librarians share frustrations about not being able to connect with students who have limited or no internet access and resources. Eads’s school serves low-income students, including many who are homeless. School staff members are checking on students whose teachers don’t receive a response via email, and Eads believes the local shelter is doing its best to support students living there. She worries most about those living in hotels or more unstable situations.

And through it all, she can’t shake a mental picture and even have a little hope for some positive changes in the future.

“I have had this image of a stern librarian shushing the whole world, a giant "Shush!" that makes us all stop to check ourselves,” she said. “Was I being too loud? Or, on a global and humanitarian scale, was I taking up too many resources? Was I preventing others from reaching their goals? Was I hurting the Earth? Was I taking, using, and neglecting too much?

“The digital divide, access to books in homes, and the privilege of being able to homeschool are just a few of the educational divisions we can truly see in this moment. And now we also have the opportunity to make the necessary changes—like that moment after the shush in the library where everyone has checked themselves and then they get back to work.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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