The sudden closure of schools across the country in mid-March and the resulting pivot to distance learning has meant that the role of school librarian has shifted into a whole new gear. Certainly, the picture looks different from district to district and even school to school, but the American Association of School Librarians has been staying in touch with its membership in a number of ways, including a periodic survey that offers a snapshot of what the school librarian’s work looks like during the pandemic. AASL’s second such survey was conducted at the end of April. The information from 975 respondents represents 1,087 schools and more than a million students. We consulted those survey results and contacted some individual school librarians to highlight a range of experiences and best practices.
“I’ve never worked so much in my entire life! It’s been crazy, but fun,” says Shannon McClintock Miller, innovation director of instructional technology and library media at Van Meter Community School in Van Meter, Iowa, about how she’s been adjusting to changes in her job since the Covid-19 outbreak. “From the very start, I feel like Van Meter didn’t miss a beat,” she says. “Once we got word from the state and decided as a district what we were going to do, we were ready. I’m so proud of everybody. Being a 1:1 district [which provides one device per student] for so many years as well as being a forward-thinking district and having awesome mindsets has really helped.”
Miller followed one of her own bits of advice—“Don’t wait to be asked to do things; just start doing them”—when she quickly turned her school’s library site into a “continuous learning” page, where she began highlighting the digital resources they already had, and adding a few new ones. “When we were building up these resources, ideas, and projects, and making sure they worked in this virtual learning environment, there were so many things out there that were free—which was amazing, but also pretty overwhelming,” she says. “So another piece of advice is, don’t feel that you have to add all these new things. Use the tools that have already worked with your district and focus on that.”
Miller’s strategy for swiftly making more digital tools available is one that most of her colleagues adopted as well. According to AASL’s survey, just over 94% of respondents say they have been expanding online resources available to students (curating and promoting). In tandem with offering digital tools, 84.8% of school librarians are offering virtual assistance (via email, phone, chat, etc.) to students, and 78.25% have offered how-tos for accessing virtual resources in the form of written instructions, recorded lessons, or some other method.
Craig Seasholes, teacher librarian at Dearborn Park International Elementary School in Seattle, has been hosting two weekly Book Chat sessions during which he invites students and staff to share what they’ve been reading via “60-second lightning book talks.” From that point, he says, “Information goes out in our district Learning Management System, and readers contribute titles in a shared PowerPoint slideshow unique to each session.” The recommended titles are then added to a growing Follett Destiny Collection. In addition, Seasholes says he attends teachers’ classroom online meetings and “adds [his] ‘3 minutes from Bookman’ presentation highlighting print and online resources appropriate to each class.” He also participates in three Read-a-Rama Virtual Storytimes hosted by Michelle Martin and Rachelle Washington on their site each week.
Seasholes’s activities fall under a category labeled “virtual reading development” in the AASL survey, which includes book clubs, readalouds, storytimes, and book talks, and 70% of survey respondents said they were offering such activities to learners.
“For me, distance learning has meant my being available for tech help for teachers and working with students on questions they have,” says Elissa Malespina, teacher librarian at Verona High School in Verona, N.J. She credits her “awesome administration” for helping everyone get a bit of a jump on the distance learning setup. “They started preparing about two weeks prior to our closure [on March 16], included me in the discussion, and helped train teachers on how to use some virtual learning tools,” she says.
In one recent example of virtual connection, Malespina and some of her debate students have been helping a school in Brazil with their debates. Miller has been taking advantage of video conferencing platforms to plan virtual field trips, including ones to a farm and the Toledo Zoo, for younger students, and to host author visits, among other things.
Communication is key
The librarians we contacted spoke of the importance of communication—with students, with families, with administrators and subject teachers, and with each other—in the distance learning environment. “It has been important to stay connected to the students and offer learning and support in manageable portions in consideration for students, families, and teachers,” says Fran Glick, coordinator of library media programs and digital resources for Baltimore County Public Schools in Towson, Md.
“We made sure things were consistent across every grade level and teacher,” Miller says. For example, she explains that all of the second-grade teachers got together and offered the same things to every student, creating equitable learning and access. “A family with multiple kids could look at our continuous learning page and see it organized that way,” she says. “Consistency and communication” are the keys to being able to share resources effectively with families and kids, Miller adds.
“Our school library media specialists at the elementary level are meeting with students using Google Meet in order to support the lessons that are available in our learning management system and in print pathways,” Glick says. “Our secondary library media specialists are co-teaching and curating a lot to help their content-teaching colleagues.” The AASL survey suggests that this is a common practice, and reveals that 85% of respondents are “offering resource curation and technology tools for ‘classroom’ instruction, which includes suggesting titles/resources.” When it comes to keeping in touch with colleagues, Seasholes offers a favorite tip: “During most online meetings I work on a FitDesk bicycle-desk with a portable green screen hung behind me that allows highlighting images of books, resources, or images relevant to the gatherings,” he says.
Malespina has been using digital newsletter tool Smore, multimedia resource curation tool Wakelet, and Google Classroom as well as her website and social media accounts “to keep parents and students informed, which has been really good,” she says. She has also been working with the New Jersey Association of School Librarians to “put together a road map to student success through your school librarian, where we share key ways that a school librarian can help administrators during this time period.” More than 80% of school librarians who responded to the AASL survey indicated that they are providing curated resources for at-home activities (nonhomework) to families, 75% share community resources (public library resources, health and well-being resources, etc.) with families, and 61% are offering tech support to students’ families.
The power of print
Though virtual resources have received a lot of attention during this period of distance learning, school librarians remain stalwart supporters of print books.
“On the day before our closure, and with one day’s notice, we encouraged all schools to have their students check out as many books as they could,” Glick says. “We have a lot of books in student homes right now. Our hope is to find a way to provide more to support summer reading. We know that not all students have home libraries, and we are considering what we can do to get print materials in the hands of students.” She adds, “One of the things that we are hearing from school staff is that print is more appealing than ever as a nonscreen option for engagement.”
In New Jersey, Malespina says, “I have been allowing students to check out books from the VHS library.” To that end, she ran several pickup and delivery days prior to May 20, when her building closed for construction. “I am allowing all students—except 12th graders—to keep books over the summer,” she says.
Seasholes believes that “books are the original and enduring ‘laptop technology’ to help readers make sense of their world and the worlds of others. By bike or by mail, I’m doing everything in my power to get ‘Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors’ books into readers’ hands—and laptops—during this extended hiatus,” he says. “Reading is a prescription that can cure both anxiety and boredom; and the wealth of time available to students means that this is the perfect opportunity to develop life-long independent reading habits.” But he also points out that “high-quality e-books and audiobooks with student-friendly access are also showing themselves to be a resource that should only increase in value as education shifts to greater use of online learning tools,” adding, “We live in a world of books and bytes: the issue is to get the best resources into readers’ hands in a safe and effective manner to provide support for student learning and independent reading.”
Miller has gone above and beyond to keep print books in the mix as well. She notes that teachers and parents who had already been facilitating book clubs for students throughout the school year asked if they could continue them even though the library was closed. Miller embraced the idea wholeheartedly. She has ordered new books, organized them at her home, and either delivered them or left them packaged on her porch for teachers to pick up and distribute to students. Miller and the participating teachers and parents followed all the suggested safety guidelines and kept families’ needs in mind throughout the process. Discussions about the books were then held virtually on Google Meet and Zoom, and Miller lined up such authors as Newbery Medalist Jerry Craft and Michael Buckley to connect with the students as well.
“I’ve been able to continue ordering print books from independent booksellers who are delivering during the pandemic,” Seasholes says. “Once [processed in school cataloguing], I’ve highlighted them in online meetings and emails. I’ve been able to modestly check out and distribute books to interested students by placing them in sealed bags that allow several days between handling for the recommended safe ‘rest’ period. No doubt about it, this is a painfully slow process.”
Seasholes also held a virtual book fair sponsored by local nonprofit Page Ahead, which he says will provide each K–2 student with 12 books for summer reading. “Whereas the book selection used to happen in the library, this year’s fair is all online,” Seasholes says, “with delivery of the dozen books slated for the last two weeks of school.”
Similarly, Miller held a Follett Book eFair, during which students and families ordered books that were delivered to Miller’s house. She provided drop-off and pickup services to distribute families’ purchases. Through all her combined activities during the pandemic, “I’ve made at least 100 front-step deliveries,” Miller says. “It’s been so neat.”
Summer and beyond
By the time the school year at Van Meter wrapped up on May 22, Miller had already added a Summer Learning and Reading Opportunities page to her Continuous Learning Site and mailed a bookmark containing an encouraging message and links to the library and technology resources to nearly 500 students. The virtual book clubs will continue through the summer, and on May 25 Miller launched a virtual Camp Adventure, which offers 12 weeks of reading, learning, and creative adventures organized around a different theme each week.
As things officially wound down at Verona High School, Malespina says she helped the guidance department make a video about where seniors were headed after graduation. Seasholes was making plans for an online graduation for the fifth graders who will be moving on to middle school. And both Glick and Seasholes are partnering in various ways with their local public libraries in support of summer reading, as would typically be the case for them (and for most school librarians) even if there weren’t a pandemic.
Uncertainty still clouds any forecast of the new academic year. But the librarians we spoke with believe they can handle whatever may come their way. “Once direction comes from our state and local governments, we will have to rethink our practice,” Glick says. “We began our remote practices by creating a Translation of Practice document that is organized by the four domains we use to define effective teaching. I am confident we will do more with that. Our goal will always be providing service to students, teachers, and families, and as soon as we know more, we will be setting that course.”
Malespina’s preparations put her in good stead to help students either in person, should they return to school, or virtually. “I already had a UV light, which I used to sanitize the books and Chromebooks and electronics we have in the library,” she says. “I plan to continue that. I also am working on purchasing more e-books and digital resources for students and teachers.”
At Van Meter, “we’re just starting to talk about next year,” Miller says. “I know we’ll keep doing great things at our school no matter what. The things we have learned already just in the last eight weeks have been amazing and we’ve been in a growth mindset. I know that whatever happens we’re going to be prepared.”
Seasholes says, “Ever since our Washington Library Association formulated the Library Information Technology Program Framework, I’ve been teaching and advocating for librarians to embrace the instruction and information management elements of our work in addition to the traditional role of reading advocate. My colleagues at ISTE and AASL, and Mark Ray and Shannon Miller at Future Ready Librarians, are continuing to build the case for ‘what’s next’ in librarianship. The sudden shift to online schooling precipitated by the pandemic is well within our mission to ensure students are enthusiastic and effective users and producers of ideas and information.”
As the next academic year approaches, the librarians we spoke with confirm that people are definitely talking about learning loss—and are concerned about the one-two punch of a Covid-19 slide and summer slide taking a toll. “Lots of things are going to change and it’s a lot to think about,” Miller says. “But our job is about meeting our kids wherever they are and helping them get to where they need to be.” Thankfully, she and a number of her colleagues appear ready to face the challenge.