As the start of school approaches (or is already here in some states), the Covid-19 crisis rages on, leaving many educators around the country very concerned about health and safety issues regarding if or when they and their students will return to the classroom or library. The reentry plans for many school districts are still in flux due to frequently shifting circumstances and guidelines. The disruptions and numerous uncertainties surrounding the pandemic have made an already challenging era for school librarians and other educators that much tougher. “It’s a real interesting world out there right now,” says John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, characterizing what advocacy for school librarians facing job cuts has looked like so far this year.
“The cuts that we’ve seen coming into the 2020–2021 school year have all been using Covid-19 as an excuse rather than the budget actually falling apart yet,” says Chrastka. “All the prognostications and forecasting from groups like CCSSO [the Council of Chief State School Officers] and the National Association of State Budget Officers is that the 2021–2022 school year is going to be the most perilous. Without solutions from the feds, that’s when it’s really going to hit.”
As a result, Chrastka notes, the cuts to school library programs heading into the approaching school year “have all been made by administrators, superintendents and principals, trying to take advantage of the crisis and making the cuts they wanted to make anyway. It’s kind of political cover for them right now.” SaveSchoolLibrarians.org—the activist website funded by Follett and featuring EveryLibrary’s school library advocacy efforts—has been active in several situations of this type. “Local advocates are very, very concerned when they hear that administrators are trying to pull a fast one,” Chrastka says, “and they are showing up to fight those kinds of cuts.”
As a case in point, the state of Pennsylvania appears to be facing a wave of school librarian position cuts that can’t be explained by the pandemic. “This year has looked dramatically different and I don’t really understand why,” says Debra Kachel, cochair of the local and state advocacy committee for the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. In a normal spring, PSLA hears about some districts eliminating school library positions or not planning to fill the positions of retiring school librarians. But this year “it got so bad in March and April that we [PSLA’s advocacy committee] had to create a Google form for people to fill out and notify us of proposed cuts because requests were coming in so rapidly,” Kachel says. “We would get two or three in a day, and my cochair and I started taking turns on who to contact. That has never happened before.”
Kachel says that the state legislators with whom PSLA has been working to pass HB1355 and SB752, which would ensure equitable library services for all Pennsylvania’s K–12 students, are frustrated and baffled by the increased number of proposed cuts. “They’ve said to me, ‘There’s no reason that these districts should be cutting so many librarian positions, because our state has already voted on an education budget for all of next school year based on exactly what all the schools had this past year. They know the state funding that they’re getting, and they kind of know that they’re going to get additional money from the feds.’ ” Kachel adds that one of the legislation’s biggest sponsors in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives expressed it this way: “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know why there are so many proposed layoffs of school librarians this year.”
A few months ago, Kachel and members of the PSLA advocacy committee had a videoconference call with the leaders of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the state’s teachers’ union. PSEA leadership confirmed to Kachel that they were already working with 69 districts, out of 500 total in the state, that had notified them they were laying off teachers, but it’s not known how many of these positions are held by librarians.
The unusual uptick in proposed school librarian cuts in Pennsylvania districts compelled Kachel and her committee to quickly assemble a new portfolio of strategies for librarians to use. The program includes resources from PSLA, AASL, and ALA, as well as a position statement from PSLA emphasizing the role of the trained and certified school librarian in addressing the anticipated “Covid-19 slide” caused by school closures and learning disruptions during the pandemic.
SaveSchoolLibrarians.org and Chrastka were on board to assist Pennsylvania librarians by helping facilitate a #SaveSchoolLibrarians social media campaign on June 22. Kachel’s advocacy committee prepared a number of digital “postcards” touting the benefits of an effective school library program and a certified school librarian, with graphics provided by PA School Works.
In February, the Davenport School District in Iowa proposed a budget for fiscal year 2021 that included the cost-saving measure of laying off 22 teacher librarians in the district and replacing them with paraprofessionals. SaveSchoolLibrarians.org rallied support for those librarians, and fortunately the district both received some debt relief and found other avenues to make cuts. The Davenport School Board eventually approved a fiscal 2021 budget that saved all 22 of the teacher librarian jobs.
Covid-19 response and school reopening hurdles
School librarians and other educators have been praised for how they skillfully pivoted to meet the needs of their students and families during the school closures this spring. But the advent of a new school year as the country remains under siege by the pandemic has raised a plethora of new concerns and uncertainties, and school librarians and educators need a whole new level of support. As of this writing, many states and districts are still grappling with whether, when, and how to reopen their schools.
In Kachel’s analysis, in many Covid-era back-to-school scenarios, the physical library space will itself be at risk. “The school library facility is among the largest rooms in most schools,” she says. “We know that room is going to be commandeered for social distancing of kids.”
“I’ve heard various scenarios of that dilemma,” AASL president Kathy Carroll concurs. “I understand the necessity for social distancing obviously, but I hope in our desire or our need for moving forward that we don’t take a lot of steps backward because we’re being shortsighted. There are no perfect answers. But there are some that are worse than others. And I think removing the librarians by having us work in a capacity outside of what we’re specialized to do and closing the library space for what it is intended for—I think those are decisions that we will quickly regret. When things go back to some semblance of normalcy, we’re going to regret that we didn’t utilize our best people to move our learners forward and that we didn’t safeguard the space and use it in its best way. I don’t mean to be dismissive of these very hard decisions. But I also think we have to think long-term.”
“The only people who have been believing the rhetoric about the school library being the largest classroom in the school are the school librarians,” Chrastka says, noting that many administrators see the library as a multipurpose space. “It would be wise for our school librarian community to look at defending their space, because if you lose your space, you lose your mindshare. There should be some alternatives presented to hollowing out the school library and making a holding pen for students who may or may not be ill. It’s cheaper to get a trailer from FEMA to put up on school grounds as a dedicated and unique space for health and safety than it would be to hollow out the school library.”
Among the ideas in PSLA’s reopening plan is counseling librarians to go to their administrators and propose to take under their wings cohorts of students whose parents do not want their children to physically attend school. “The librarian will be their teacher of record, so to speak, and the liaison between the school, the other subject teachers, and the home,” Kachel says. “We don’t know yet how that’s being received because we just recently put that out there. But I’ve been saying to librarians, ‘You’re going to have to be chameleons for a while.’ We’re going to have to blend in with whatever our schools, our teachers, and our students need right now. Because that’s what it’s going to take to hold on to jobs.”
Allison Mackley, a past president of PSLA and K–12 library department coordinator for the Derry Township School District (Hershey, Pa.) has created a Google Doc entitled “Library Opening Plan and COVID Response,” which contains concise guidance as well as links to information from ALA/AASL, the CDC, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, EveryLibrary, the NYC Department of Education, and other organizations. A color-coded infographic accompanying the document was inspired by the work of librarian Kim Borden in Pen Argyl, Pa., and other PSLA librarians who contributed to a crowdsourced Tiered Opening Plan; the design was adapted from the Eanes Independent School District Library Department in Austin, Tex. The document and infographic have been widely shared on social media, with many librarians and other educators expressing enthusiasm and gratitude for the recommendations. They cover librarians’ responsibilities for instruction and circulation within various school reopening scenarios, e.g. “100% Remote” and “In Person/Remote.”
Teaming up for more funding
Securing school library programs, like most everything in education, is a question of money. “Our policy perspective is there’s no earmark available for libraries—whether it’s school libraries or public libraries,” says Chrastka. “Without stability for schools and districts, and the state revenue situation for education, the school library is going to be a victim,” Chrastka predicts. He believes that the library community has “to be aligned for the success of schools and districts, as opposed to being singularly concerned with school library programs and school librarians only. It is a classic rising-tide-all-boats situation, as far as we can see.”
For this reason, EveryLibrary backs initiatives like the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act, sponsored by Senator Patty Murray of Washington State. This proposed legislation would build on the CARES Act and invest $345 billion in the Education Stabilization Fund to stabilize and prevent cuts to education. “That’s an ecosystem builder for education,” Chrastka says.
Some of the ways that library communities have recently been coming together include what Chrastka calls “a very successful campaign alongside the Washington, D.C., teachers union. Without the union’s participation this wouldn’t have worked.” Due to a SaveSchoolLibrarians.org online petition, as well as advocacy from AASL, the Black Caucus of the ALA, and others, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released a 2020–2021 school year budget in May that includes a 3% increase in funding for public education. “They defended the school librarian positions, they helped ensure that 90% of them would be retained going into this school year, and they’re also working on getting the other 10% back,” Chrastka says. “Thousands of people across the city showed up, as parents and as stakeholders, to fight alongside the union and alongside us to make sure that kids had a school librarian whether they’re doing an all-digital, blended, or in-person approach.”
Another important moment of teamwork was the January 24 rally for school librarians held in Philadelphia during ALA Midwinter, organized by PSLA and EveryLibrary in support of the two bills in the Pennsylvania legislature. The event drew attention to the dire circumstances of the School District of Philadelphia, which has only six school librarians to serve more than 125,000 students in 215 schools, giving the district the worst librarian-to-student ratio in the country. Following the rally and prior to the Covid-19 crisis, Kachel says, PSLA contacted Philadelphia’s school board and city council. The school board never responded, but there were three fruitful Zoom meetings with different city council members discussing proposed support, staffing, and mentoring plans. She hopes they can pick up that strand again at some point.
Other examples of new partnerships include PSLA joining various educational coalition groups, including PA Schools Work. “They are all about educational funding,” Kachel says. “We decided we were going to join these kinds of organizations because our issue is all about funding as well. And we need to have a voice at the table.”
PSLA’s strategy is in line with what Chrastka advises for school librarian advocacy moving forward. “The reality is that the other shoe hasn’t quite dropped yet for funding around school libraries and public libraries,” he says. “This is a time when folks should be gathering their resources, building alliances, joining coalitions that are bigger than the library—and my concern is that they might not be. If you’re not in a position to be politically forceful for the issues that you believe in around librarianship, then, unfortunately, you’re going to be left behind.”
This concern is the impetus behind the Library Advocacy and Funding Conference, scheduled for September 14–16 and presented online by EveryLibrary at LAFCON.org. “We’re looking to build better political literacy skills for library leaders in school, public, and academic settings, and for the state, provincial, and national associations,” Chrastka says. “Folks have been behaving as if this crisis is going to pass—we’re going to find a vaccine and everything’s going to be fine. But the funding future for public education and the policy framework for public education are starting to fall apart.”
Though Chrastka says he doesn’t want to dwell on the “gloom and doom” of the situation, “what it comes down to is there’s going to be less money, which means there’s going to be austerity budgeting, and austerity budgeting is a fight for survival—unless you are politically powerful and savvy.” According to Chrastka, 25% of every registration for the conference will be donated to state library associations; 25% will be put toward EveryLibrary advocacy efforts; 25% will go to research, training, and education through the EveryLibrary Institute (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit); and 25% will go toward conference costs, including paying presenters.
Kachel is determined to take a more positive view. “I’m really looking for opportunities right now,” she says. “The librarians I have been talking to have been saying that they have never worked more closely and more collaboratively with teachers than during Covid. I think some teachers are finally having an aha moment, saying ‘Wow, this person really has an expertise that I can use, and they can really help me. And I didn’t know that before.’ Whenever we are past this crisis, whatever the new reality’s going to look like, I’m hoping that collaborative spirit is maintained. And that’s a real opportunity for us to lean on. We’ll have to see how it all shakes out.”