For the past couple of months, as the world has grappled with stay-at-home orders and self-isolation in light of the Covid-19 crisis, PW has been reporting on the many ways that publishers and education companies are providing resources for educators, students, and families doing schoolwork at home. We checked in with a number of these companies to see how their efforts are going, what they’ve learned from this experience, and what summer and a new school year might look like.
Across the board, content providers we contacted in both the educational and trade segments of the industry reported that they’ve seen very high demand for their free digital resources since mid-March, when many schools and libraries were first forced to close their doors.
Students who are able to access digital materials from home “are definitely taking advantage of the free resources we’ve made available,” Britten Follett, executive v-p of Follett School Solutions, says. Since the Covid-19 crisis began, she notes, “we’ve seen nearly 10,000 schools sign up for our free offer of Classroom Ready Collections [standards-aligned open educational resources in various subjects] and nearly 30,000 register for access to the 1,000 free Lightbox [interactive e-book] titles.”
Based on this level of demand for digital content, Follett has worked with its publisher partners to expand its collection of free and discounted e-books, which, Follett says, “are seeing double the usage compared with this time last year.”
Mackin Educational Resources has been able to leverage the full strength of its assets, “most importantly MackinVIA, our free digital content management system,” according to Troy Mikell, director of marketing and advertising. The MackinVIA platform allows students and educators to access e-books, audiobooks, databases, videos, and read-alongs on any desktop or mobile device. Mackin credits its publishing partners with stepping up to offer nearly 10,000 multiuse e-books through this system at no cost. That move resulted in 5,000 new MackinVIA accounts over the past two months—an unprecedented number, Mikell says. During the same two-month period, the company’s recently launched Distance Learning Essentials web page containing additional free resources and content has seen more than 40,000 visits, and the MackinVIA page has racked up nearly 100,000 visits.
“The response has been extremely gratifying,” says Amy Cox, associate v-p of marketing at Capstone, of her company’s distance learning efforts. “A lot of things are really challenging, but we can tell by the usage numbers that our products are really helping. PebbleGo is our database geared for K–2 learners and Capstone Interactive is our collection of K–5 e-books. During the first 60 days of free access, more than two million PebbleGo articles were read and more than one million Capstone Interactive e-books were accessed.” She notes that these numbers reflect only what’s happening via the free accounts and excludes access from current customers.
Suren Markosian, cofounder and CEO of Epic, the subscription-based digital library for children, says the last two months have been “a period of tremendous growth” for his company. Since the mid-March launch of Epic’s Remote Student Access program, which offers students and families free use of Epic—with an invitation from a teacher—through June 30, “hundreds of thousands of new teachers joined us, in turn inviting millions of new students and families to access Epic for free at home,” Markosian says. “Content consumption overall has increased dramatically, and we are seeing Epic being used more than ever as an effective remote teaching tool,” he adds. “Simultaneously, parents are learning more about the benefits of Epic through their children at home.”
Epic has been popular in the App Store, and according to Markosian, “We have significantly increased the size of and engagement with our audiences on social media as our team works to provide fun and valuable supplemental content for kids at home.” As an example, he cites the Facebook Live video series Epic Live, which features experts—including authors and illustrators, chefs, scientists, musicians, and more—leading 20-minute “collaborative, educational, and fun classes.”
At Lerner, v-p of marketing Rachel Zugschwert shares, “We have seen large increases—doubling or even tripling in some cases—in the number of schools, libraries, and individuals accessing the free trials of our Lerner Sports Database and our e-book platform, the Lerner Bookshelf.” She echoes some of her fellow publishing colleagues when she adds, “We are also pleased to see the increase in the number of tags we’re receiving on social media as authors do readalouds of their titles.”
Since March, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt says that it has been offering free daily activities and tasks for at-home learning in math and ELA posted on its dedicated resources web page. The materials available there were developed by HMH’s “learning architects and services professionals, and these will continue throughout the summer,” according to a statement from the company. The learning-at-home resources page has “received more than 100,000 unique page views since its launch, and HMH’s blog, Shaped, which features these resources and more perspectives from educators and authors on navigating remote learning, saw a 155% jump in traffic during the month of April and continues to increase.”
HMH’s summary of its company-wide efforts goes on to note, “Given all they are facing, our connected approach is resonating with educators, who need seamless integration of core curriculum, supplemental and intervention solutions, assessment, and professional development opportunities. This spring, a number of school districts are using our digital solutions for remote learning, including Waggle, an AI-driven personalized learning and practice platform for math and ELA, and are seeing success as they connect digital platforms, like Writable [a writing skills practice platform], with literacy offerings, like HMH’s Into Literature program.”
Updates from trade publishers
The school and library marketing team at HarperCollins Children’s Books, like those at many other houses, has pivoted during the pandemic to place new emphasis on digital marketing and virtual events, and has seen solid success with this approach. New educator-targeted author videos are posted each week on the HarperStacks at Home landing page. The videos and other digital materials on HarperStacks “are getting incredible engagement and shares,” says Patty Rosati, director of school and library marketing. “Erin Entrada Kelly’s video about being brave through creativity has reached more than 100,000 Facebook users since it premiered in late March.”
Through such digital events as the first-ever virtual Book Buzz Jr. hosted by Booklist on May 26, and the May 27 Day of Dialog, in partnership with School Library Journal, Rosati says Harper “can now connect with thousands of librarians, many more than they would normally see at in-person events. It also levels the playing field in a way, particularly for librarians and teachers who don’t have the funding support to attend national conferences.” Additionally, Rosati’s department is working directly with some library systems to present title previews for collection development librarians and educators. She says that one Harper-focused fall preview had nearly 3,000 attendees. Going forward, the team plans to continue with virtual events through the fall and likely beyond.
Victoria Stapleton, executive director of school and library marketing at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, elaborates on the benefits of a currently flourishing world of online events. “We’ve leaned into already existing digital events such as SLJ’s Middle Grade Magic and Day of Dialog virtual conferences,” she says. “Expanded attendance at these events has allowed us to grow our newsletter and social media platforms 15%–20%. Success with these events has led to partnerships with Texas Library Association and National Council of Teachers of English on further virtual professional development sessions and development of our own organic online events, like our TXLA Happy Hour and our upcoming ALA virtual panels.”
One effort that stands out for Stapleton during this time is the work her team has done for Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, a YA adaptation of Kendi’s National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. “Our online NCTE session with Reynolds and Kendi was attended by 2,200 educators, far more than would have been at an in-person panel,” she says. “The energy and passion of that discussion has led NCTE to schedule future professional development sessions using Stamped and addressing how to use it in classrooms. The commitment of educators to continue teaching at a high level, to continue their own learning, and to pursue difficult conversations of inclusion and structural change in spite of the pandemic is inspiring.”
“We are pleased to see that our efforts to make authors, illustrators, and materials easy to access, virtually, for educators has been met with positive feedback,” says Adrienne Waintraub, executive director of school and library marketing at Random House Children’s Books. “Our RHTeachersLibrarians.com traffic has increased approximately 80% during this time compared to the same time last year. Engagement on social and with our email campaigns is up. On our Twitter, @RHCBEducators, for example, our average monthly new followers doubled at the beginning of this time. Attendance for virtual conferences and panels are up. We had more than 2,500 attendees to one of our RHCB author webinars that we did via Booklist, which we were told was a record number.”
Lauren Tarshis, senior v-p and editor-in-chief/publisher of Scholastic classroom magazines, described how her company, like many others, hit the ground running with the approach of the pandemic. “Our classroom magazine team took an all hands on deck approach in late February, determined to get our new Scholastic Learn at Home site live in early March, as it was becoming clear that school closures could become part of our reality,” she says. She expressed great pride in her team for this accomplishment in light of everyone “managing their own challenges and demands in an uncertain time.” Tarshis adds: “It was inspiring and an incredible experience to create something so true to the mission of Scholastic in support of learning for all kids. The reception has been beyond our imagination, making this project a highlight in our work and a motivator as we have continued to produce our classroom magazines. To date, we have nearly 33 million visits, and 73 million page views from all around the country and the world.”
The Read & Learn with Simon Kids landing page of resources launched by Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing in March has been seeing high usage as well. Snack & Read Live with Simon Kids, a half-hour video series that streams live on Facebook three afternoons a week, has presented more than 20 events to date, and the videos have received nearly 40,000 views on the Simon Kids Facebook page, according to Lauren Hoffman, v-p and director of marketing and publicity. The Read & Learn with Simon Kids video series hosted on the Simon Kids YouTube channel features readalouds, drawing tutorials, writing exercises, and other activities, and the programs in that series have received almost 33,000 views combined. Printable activities on the Read & Learn page have been downloaded thousands of times as well. And in April, S&S Children’s Publishing’s education/library department saw a 30% increase in total visitors to its website over the previous month.
S&S additionally promotes and amplifies “the amazing work our S&S authors and illustrators are doing in the virtual space,” Hoffman says. Examples include Christian Robinson’s Making Space video series on Instagram; Debbie Ohi’s Ask Me to Ask! video series on YouTube; and Aaron Reynolds’s Stay at Home Show! video series on YouTube.
Hoffman’s department also helped Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, launch his first initiative in support of his Grab the Mic: Tell Your Story platform, which includes a monthly newsletter for parents and educators focused on relevant, timely topics, and the biweekly “Write. Right. Rite.” video series designed to inspire young readers’ creativity.
Preventing summer and Covid slide
As the 2019–2020 academic year winds to a close, most publishers we heard from indicated that the digital resources they ramped up for the recent phase of imposed distance learning will remain in place into the summer months—some through June 30, some through September 30, and others indefinitely.
“We’ll continue to offer our HomewithHMH newsletter through the summer,” says Lisa DiSarro, executive director of marketing at HMH Books for Young Readers. “Avoiding learning loss and the summer slump is something we know is important to parents and educators, so we want to do what we can to assist them.” With that goal in mind, DiSarro says the company rushed a new title to publication: Two Whats?! and a Wow! Think & Tinker Playbook. “It’s an interactive, science-based playbook—not workbook!—based on the popular daily podcast Two What’s?! and a Wow! from Guy Raz and Mindy Thomas, the creators of the Wow in the World kids’ podcast,” she explains. “Like us, Mindy and Guy felt the need to respond to school closures by creating resources to help make remote learning engaging and entertaining. The book will be released on June 30 and will be similar in structure to the podcast, challenging readers to identify the true ‘wow’ scientific fact among three options, two of which are made up. It will also offer STEAM-based activities that can be done at home.”
Several publishers have tweaked their regularly scheduled summer playbook to align with the challenges created by the pandemic. “We know there are going to be a lot of disappointed kids who won’t be able to attend camp this summer or even set up play dates, so we’ve created @HarperKids from Home Summer Edition,” says Sari Murray, director of marketing. “The initiative, which kicked off just after Memorial Day weekend, comprises plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy together. We’ll have Pete the Cat scavenger hunts, letter writing activities with Frog and Toad, adventure activities with Flat Stanley, and much more to help keep children active and entertained throughout the summer months.” Harper will also continue to provide resources and content for readers ages 7–12 through the Shelf Stuff at Home video series and with the launch of its Summer Reading Challenge, which runs through July and presents readers with a new book-focused challenge each week, as well as the chance to enter to win a grand prize.
According to Tarshis, the Scholastic Learn at Home site will remain open and free through the end of the school year and for continued literacy over the summer months. In addition, she says, “the company is offering a range of free resources, including Scholastic Summer Read-a-Palooza, our free program designed to increase book access and ensure engaging experiences to keep kids reading this summer—two key pieces of the puzzle to stem learning loss presented in a way that does not add additional burdens on families or educators.”
Participants in the Scholastic Summer Read-a-Palooza program will have access to “a new summer zone in Scholastic Home Base, a free and safe digital destination, where they will be encouraged to explore free resources, read select full e-books, engage with fellow readers and favorite authors, and keep Reading Streaks, which also help unlock a donation of 100,000 print books from Scholastic, distributed by United Way Worldwide to kids with limited or no access to books,” Tarshis says.
Back to school?
There are still many uncertainties about if/when/how students will return to the classroom this fall. But publishers have begun to formulate ideas about what their strategies will look like when a new school year dawns.
“This situation has put more emphasis on how we can best communicate digitally,” DiSarro says. “My team has already discovered new platforms to help us communicate with our audience this way, and we’ll plan on doing even more of that—and prepare our authors to do the same. We’ll also continue to reach out to educators and librarians to see what works best for them and what they need most from us.”
In Cox’s view, “It seems clear that distance learning, whether in long stretches or short bursts, is here to stay for the foreseeable future. And it seems clear that some traditional ways of connecting with our customers—trade shows, in-person sales calls—are going to be really limited. So as we think about our usual fall activities, we’re challenging ourselves to think of the objectives first, and then figure out the tactics. Something as simple as printing a promotional poster might not be the best use of resources, so we’re asking ourselves what the purpose of the promotional poster was in the first place. Was it just habit? Did it serve a purpose and if so, what’s the best way to meet that purpose given our new reality?”
Follett says her company believes it has an “obligation to guide school and district leaders based on the best practices we’re seeing across the country.” While the immediate reaction to the pandemic may have been to go all digital, “educators are quickly realizing that blended learning will be the new normal. For every dollar and idea we’re investing in delivering eLearning content and technology, we also must reinforce the importance of print materials and develop ways of helping families build their home libraries.”
“We’re trying to provide as much extra support for teachers, parents, and kids as we can,” Tarshis says. “We’re imagining that in many areas, kids will be learning at home, others will be back at school, and some may be shifting back and forth. So we want to make sure our resources work in all settings. Again, simplicity and engagement will be key goals.” This fall, she says, Scholastic magazine editors will be delivering “stories that are even more inspiring and positive and uplifting. For those upcoming articles, we will be lowering reading levels a bit to recognize the concerns that parents and teachers have around the learning loss kids are experiencing and how they will make up for this time in the fall.” And describing the component of Scholastic’s efforts that Tarshis believes is most important, she says, “we’re doing even more with social emotional learning, providing resources that will help teachers and students.”
As she envisions the best approach for a new school year, Stapleton says, “I’m a big believer in forward momentum. This situation has allowed my team to think more creatively about how we interact with our educational partners. We’re developing a series of online events incorporating a variety of platforms where we can provide professional development and discussion opportunities. I don’t know that we need more educator guides or downloadables. I think we need to encourage and foster connections.”
Should the pandemic not end by September, Hoffman says, “We are prepared to pivot accordingly should schools not start immediately in the fall or should crowds of 10-plus people not be possible for a while. If virtual school visits become the norm, we will work with our authors and illustrators to create compelling, entertaining, and educational virtual events for schools and bookstores. And we will continue to look for new and impactful ways to engage with our readers and educators, which now include parents, whether they be learning at home or at school.”
The big takeaways
Reflecting on the quick changes they’ve had to make as customer needs and business models have been altered by the coronavirus, publishers and content providers shared some of the key lessons they’ve learned from this experience so far.
“At a time when so many teachers and librarians are sending resources home to parents who are now supervising their child’s classroom studies, it’s essential to make sure that the materials not only help with curriculum but are also speaking to parents who may be doing this for the first time,” Waintraub says. “We’ve been reviewing our materials with an eye for parents and caregivers who are stepping into this teacher position while juggling their own work and other home/family needs.”
For Hoffman, “Having to pivot in this unique moment reaffirmed one of our guiding principles, which is that the consumer should always be first in our thoughts—whether that’s a child, a teen, a librarian, a teacher, or a parent whose circumstances have now required them to become a teacher. If we put their needs at the center of what we do, and change course when those needs evolve, we can develop great new programs to respond to any situation.”
“We learned about the power of patience and the incredible kindness of our community of Epic users,” Markosian says, noting that high demand in the earliest days of their Remote Student Access offer meant that people experienced long wait times for help. “People were so patient and kind as we worked to solve their problems. Teachers and parents who had been successful jumped in and helped coach others in public forums on social media.” In addition, he says that while teachers have always played an important role at Epic, “these last few months have brought us all a renewed respect and tremendous appreciation for our teachers and all they do for our children.”
Some parents who have taken on the new role of teacher have helped provide Rachel Benoit, director of marketing at Nomad Books, with one of her company’s takeaways. “We’ve discovered that the one thing homeschooling parents are clamoring for is work their kids can do independently,” she says. “It’s hard to balance work from home, caring for family members, and homeschooling. Books that engage kids in ways that don’t require adult involvement are critical right now, and we’re making sure customers know that’s exactly what we provide.”
Follett sees two standouts: “Free is great, but usage is key. And kids are craving fiction books to read for pleasure,” she says. “This crisis is an opportunity for librarians to further demonstrate the value of the amazing collections schools and districts have already invested in, and how teachers, students, and parents can access those resources using Follett Destiny Library Manager. The first step was to make the additional free resources available. A quick next step was to put together videos and guides to show teachers how to use the resources and technology in eLearning instruction.”
For Stapleton, lessons learned from Little, Brown’s response to the pandemic boil down to the essentials. “I know this sounds simplistic,” she says, “but: Don’t panic. Be flexible. Listen.”
And Cox shares the sentiments of many publishers when she talks about embracing the mission behind the work at hand. “As a company specializing in educational publishing and as a member of our community in general, when crises come up, it’s our responsibility to help,” she says. “We’ve always believed that. But in those first days where everything was so unfamiliar and happening so quickly, there wasn’t one single meeting about if we should do something. We just got it done. It feels great to be able to help and really empowering to move forward quickly and decisively. That’s exactly what will see us through whatever comes next.”
Below, more on the school and library spotlight.
Equity and the Role of Print
Where do physical books fit into Covid-era distance learning?
Pandemic Best Practices
School librarians weigh in on the strategies that have worked for their communities during the current crisis.
In the Field: Stopping the Covid Slide
Suzanne Tonini, collection development supervisor for Denver Public Schools, shares how her the city’s public schools and libraries are continuing to meet students’ educational needs amid the pandemic.