When the Covid-19 crisis forced the closure of schools across the country, the abrupt change resulted in many already vulnerable children and families facing additional challenges. A lack of access to food, and to learning tools including the internet and books, have been among the most pressing obstacles, along with mounting concern about the double whammy of spring school disruptions and summer learning slide. In an effort to assist families facing such hurdles, Follett and two nonprofit early literacy organizations—Page Ahead in Seattle and Start Reading Now in Minneapolis—worked together to ensure that kids from low-income families received books to read over the summer break. As a result, Follett shipped nearly 80,000 books combined to the two groups.

Unable to employ their typical methods for reaching students at school, Page Ahead and Start Reading Now had to take a new tack with their seasonal campaigns.. “Page Ahead’s goal is to close the literacy achievement gap experienced by children from low-income families,” executive director Susan Dibble said. “Because summer learning loss is one of the largest contributors to that gap, our largest program, Book Up Summer, provides 12 new books to K–2 students during book fairs held in the late spring to take home and keep.” She noted that the goal behind this effort is to “build a print-rich environment in the child’s home, providing fingertip access to books they choose for themselves. Book Up Summer keeps students reading over the summer and prevents them from losing ground in reading skill.”

The situation is similar for Start Reading Now, where co-founder Kevin Terrell says the organization has been helping kids in Minneapolis for seven years. “We normally use in-school book fairs to reach kids,” he said. “We serve the 25 schools in Minneapolis Public Schools that have the highest rate of kids on free/reduced lunch, our measure for ‘need.’ We serve every first-, second-, and third-grader in those schools, all with the intent of addressing Summer Setback/Summer Slide and the achievement gap, as measured by reading ability at fourth grade. This is based on research done by Richard Allington. We essentially are a real-world implementation of that research.”

Terrell said that in a “regular” year, Start Reading Now reaches between 4,000 and 5,000 kids. “This year we couldn’t be in the schools, so we needed an online ordering solution. Follett was the only vendor willing to make the adjustments we needed to get us books in a way that allowed our volunteers to then get the books to kids.” Despite the unusual circumstances this time around, Terrell said that “with Follett’s help and the assistance of our long-standing volunteers and funders, we were still able to reach about 2,500 kids.” As he described it, “Kids ordered online, Follett shipped us the books, our volunteers packed them, and we mailed them to each kid. It was a complete change in how we operate, but everyone rolled with it, and we ended up reaching probably 90% of the kids we could have conceivably reached.” He also praised Start Reading Now’s lead contact at Minneapolis Public Schools for “adapting on the fly.”

In Seattle, Dibble was also faced with “quickly developing alternate ways for thousands of children to choose their books.” She reached out to Follett, “to see what might be possible, especially at the scale we needed.” Follett was able to work with Page Ahead to create an online book fair that allowed kids and families to shop for their books virtually. Follett’s IT team faced a huge undertaking in customizing the web portal for Page Ahead, according to Dibble. “And they did an incredible job, especially on such a tight schedule,” she said. “For example, we needed them to strip out all pricing on the books. Book Up Summer is free of charge to families, so we didn’t want to create confusion or influence book selection by having prices visible. We also needed to be billed directly for the book orders, so the Follett team had students select books and put them in their Wish List. It was a really creative workaround that made book selection simple for students, which is exactly what we were looking for.”

Dibble noted, “There was such urgency to get books for students at home. So to be able to find a solution that worked was a huge victory.” As a bonus, she said, “The Follett warehouse team was even able to pick the books and bag them by student, and then box each order up by teacher. This was a tremendous help on the back end, as schools were still closed, and it would have been difficult for teachers to bag up the books for each child.” In all, Page Ahead provided summer reading books to more than 13,000 students.

Both organizations are very pleased that they were able to continue their mission in light of the unprecedented irregularities they faced. And Follett was equally enthusiastic about its role. “Supporting choice was very important to both Start Reading Now and Page Ahead as they wanted their kids to be empowered to select their own books online just as they would do with a traditional onsite fair,” said Britten Follett, executive v-p of Follett School Solutions. “We were thrilled to help promote these kids’ love of reading print books, especially when student achievement and literacy skills have the potential to suffer greater loss than normal due to the extended time away from school.”

Dibble and Terrell said the response from teachers, parents, and kids has been one of gratitude and excitement. “We have countless stories from the kids every year in terms of how they react to getting to choose and keep a bunch of new books,” Terrell said. “This year, the most meaningful story came about because of tragedy. [As many people know] we had riots in Minneapolis that included a post office being burned down. We had kids frantically calling their teachers, afraid that their books were destroyed and that they wouldn’t have any new ones to read this summer. So yes, we think our books make a difference for the kids.”