School Libraries Getting Repurposed in Reopening Plans

As schools prepare multiple plans for the start of the academic year, some librarians around the country already know if they go back in-person this year, their spaces have already been slated for classroom use in an effort to meet social distance requirements.

School administrators, educators, parents, and students are struggling with anxiety and uncertainty heading into the new school year, which is scheduled to start in early August for some schools in the southern part of the country.

Superintendents are busy preparing multiple plans: one with hybrid schedules that splits the student body into pods and staggered times for in-person and online instruction, another that is solely remote learning. The most optimistic among the plans—with the most building space to offer—shows an entirely in-person, “normal” schedule. They have provisions for a pivot to remote-only learning if the public health situation in their community requires it or there is an outbreak in a school.

For some librarians, however, the die has been cast even before those decisions are made: If students return to the buildings in the 2020–21 academic year, there will be no library waiting for them. The spaces are being turned into classrooms to provide the required social distancing between students. Guidelines recommend three to six feet between students.

Jennifer Powers, librarian at St. John’s Episcopal School in Dallas, learned her library would become three classrooms with partitions between them.

“It’s not just the library we’re losing, we’re losing our performance auditorium, our gyms, we’re losing all the specialist classrooms,” says Powers, who is entering her 13th year at the K–8 private school. “It’s going to be a hell of a year for everybody. I guess that’s the one thing that’s saving me. I know it’s not just me. We’re all going through this. We all have to give up things.”

Powers will be moving around the school with her cart full of books. She plans to place bins with lids in the hallway for returning books and let them sit quarantined for 72 hours, as per the most recent guidelines from the American Library Association, she says.

As Powers devised these plans and Texas hospitals filled to capacity, President Donald Trump tried to order schools to reopen. He and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos threatened to withhold federal funding for schools that didn’t comply. Those ultimatums meant little. Congress controls federal school funding, but some local districts feared that desperately needed pandemic payments could be withheld or redirected from public schools that are already underfunded. DeVos suggested that if public schools didn’t open fully, the tax money would go to individual families to possibly be used for private schools.

For the most part, administrators seemed to be standing strong against those threats, putting the health and safety of their staff and students above all. New York City, the largest public school district in the nation, and the Philadelphia Public Schools announced a hybrid model. Los Angeles and San Diego counties said that they would be online-only in the fall as their COVID-19 numbers continue to rise. The California governor has started shutting things back down to try to limit the spread.

Throughout all of this, educators worry about their health and that of their families and students. Teachers’ unions fight publicly for the safety of their members, releasing their own sets of guidelines and demands for the reopening of schools. In New Jersey, a draft of the New Jersey Education Association’s demands went public on social media. Among other safety measures, the union wants staff and students tested for the novel coronavirus the week before school starts and then free, on-site testing for students and staff each week, as well as six feet social distancing at all times (some state guidelines say three to six is OK), plastic barriers where the distance can’t be maintained, one-way hallways where needed, and masks worn at the bus stop.

The Richmond Education Association released a letter that read, in part, “At the present time, it is unequivocally unsafe for us to conduct in-person learning.” It went on to list the reasons people give for schools to be open then responding to each with the what the union believes are the “right” questions society should be asking, including, “Why are our schools so poorly resourced that we can’t even fund student and staff needs during normal times, and don’t even come close to having the money to accommodate the adjustments that would be necessary to make partial in-school learning feasible during a health crisis?” and “If the economy so heavily depends on schools, why are businesses paying tax rates that allow for six figure salaries while schools don’t even have functioning air-conditioning units?

Wait and see
Most schools are like Powers’s school, waiting until the last possible minute to make the call, knowing only that things may not be anything close to “normal” and students will lose out whether they are in the buildings or not.

Powers and other specialists at her school are not the only ones giving up their space. Across the country, art and music rooms, gyms, and media centers are being lost as administrators desperately find ways to follow distancing recommendations. The Massachusetts guidelines call for making common areas classrooms: “Alternative spaces in the school (e.g., cafeteria, library, and auditorium) should be repurposed to increase the amount of available space to accommodate the maximum distance possible.”

“My concern is this could be the beginning of the end, that once we learn to do without a school library for a period of time, the position will become irrelevant,” says a Massachusetts high school librarian who asked that her name and school affiliation not be used. She said before the pandemic struck, there was already discussion of giving up some of the library space. Now, it is all of it, as she will be moved to a classroom to teach digital literacy. The books will remain in the stacks untouched.

“For the time being I’m being moved, the books are not,” she says. “That begs the question, do we have a library if we don’t have free access to the books?”

They do have ebooks, she says, but without the physical titles, it is a loss of half the collection.

Powers is hopeful that the promise that this is a temporary situation will be kept. Still, she can’t keep fear from creeping in. There is already an issue with storage space, she has been told. Will the school have to get rid of the library furniture because there is nowhere to keep it? What if the smaller classes prove preferable?

“Usually when you move forward, how often do you go back?” she asks. “I really want to trust my head when she says this won’t be permanent. I can’t imagine how it would be permanent. I’m really hoping they’re not going to split [the library] in half. That would be disastrous.”

If the school is forced into completely remote teaching, she has been promised that she will have her own mandatory class with the students as opposed to the once-a-week optional situation at the end of last year. Many librarians struggled to find their place in the makeshift remote learning at the end of last year.

On the move

An elementary school librarian in New Jersey, who also requested her name not be used, is not losing her space for classroom use, but if school reopens as planned with a hybrid schedule, she has been told her media center would be closed. The plan is for her to go classroom to classroom and teach media literacy and technology (­students will not be allowed to leave their classrooms).

“We’re eliminating library circulation, readers’ advisory, all the read-alouds,” she says, adding that she will try to include some read-alouds in her media literacy lessons as she typically does when students come to her in the library.

As for the books, she can support teachers’ lesson plans and circulate books to faculty members via a cart. The school would not even consider circulating physical titles to students until at least December, she was told.

Much like when schools shut down in March, librarians are reaching out to each other to discuss ways to get books safely into kids’ hands when they can’t go to the library. Some want to give children a book menu that allows them to pick their interests or list books they have enjoyed. Librarians could then drop off books in the classroom for students to take home. This year, many librarians are also seeking ideas about how to decorate, organize, and disinfect carts. The situation is far from ideal, but some are finding ways to stay positive.

New this school year, however, is talk about how to decorate, organize, and disinfect carts. The situation is far from ideal, but some are trying to be positive.

“I try to see the glass half full,” says the New Jersey librarian. “I’m grateful for the cart. I’m grateful to be stepping in. I think we all can agree the library shouldn’t be confined to those four walls.”

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Kara Yorio

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

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