When schools were forced to close their doors last spring as the Covid-19 crisis broke, book fairs were, expectedly, among the businesses that took a financial hit. And as school districts and book fair purveyors tried to plan for what a new academic year might look like, uncertainties presented some additional challenges. Scholastic Book Fairs has weathered these disruptions and this fall it has charted a new course by offering a series of redesigned book fair options to meet customers’ needs, building on the tagline “Safe. Easy. Essential.”

“We quickly pivoted to ensure our schools could bring the joy of the Scholastic Book Fair to their communities, no matter whether returning to learning in-person, online, or in a hybrid mode,” said Sasha Quinton, executive v-p and president of Scholastic Book Fairs. For schools wishing to hold an in-person book fair, Quinton noted, “We developed new, flexible models with enhanced safety protocols to meet their unique needs, solving for space, time, and people [crowd-size] limitations.”

Scholastic Book Fairs followed CDC and WHO guidance and worked with outside safety experts to implement a variety of stringent protocols that included additional training for staff at the company’s warehouse facilities and for its delivery drivers and team members who visit schools. New practices also include contactless payment via eWallet, as well as providing schools with book fair cases that arrive sanitized and sealed, and a safety tool kit with a setup checklist, signage, and floor stickers for physical distancing.

On-campus book fairs feature simplified formats, Quinton said, including “a quick set-up fair to balance space or time constraints, a one-directional hallway fair, an outdoor fair, and a drive-through fair [in select markets] that offers pre-assembled book packs and a mobile case of our most popular titles so families can simply drive up and choose the books or book packs they want.” Where available, the drive-through option features a branded Scholastic truck and a visit from a favorite costumed character to assist with the book distribution.

Another option for schools with fully remote or hybrid environments this fall is the Scholastic Virtual Book Fair. “Our online fair is now enhanced with an innovative, new virtual experience, so families that are distance-learning or unable to attend a community event can still experience the fun of walking into a fair, flipping through digital book flyers, watching book trailers, and browsing shelves of books,” Quinton said.

An In-Person Success

Viola L. Sickles Elementary School in Fair Haven, N.J., which has an enrollment of 400 students, typically works with Scholastic to offer a weeklong book fair each fall, which takes place in the school’s media center. That scenario was not possible this year, so the Scholastic Book Fair co-chairs at Sickles, Heather Lombardo and Colleen Rankin, and the school’s PTA hatched a new plan. “We always have an outdoor Harvest Fest at Sickles around the middle of October with games, food, bounce houses,” Lombardo said. “We were already making huge modifications to that, when the idea was raised to combine Harvest Fest and the book fair into one big event.” So, on October 17, Sickles set up its in-person book fair in the parking lot of the nearby middle school, where the Harvest Fest takes place. “Scholastic transitioned us seamlessly to a cart fair,” Lombardo said. “They delivered it to another location without any issues and gave us a lot of flexibility on that.” Lombardo and Rankin both offered high praise for family and community support and for their Scholastic Book Fairs representative Cassandra Maguire. “She told me that there weren’t a lot of fairs going on and offered us some free books she had, if we could use them,” Lombardo said. “She met me on the weekend and was doing everything she could to help us.”

Because the Sickles book fair was an event for families, Lombardo explained that Scholastic provided “cookbooks and things that might appeal to parents” in the mix of titles. “They were also very mindful of the books they chose for older kids.” In a normal year, Lombardo said, “When we do the book fair for the middle school, we have to send out fliers for permission on certain categories of books [with more mature subject matter]. This time Scholastic didn’t send us anything that required permission.”

Lombardo and Rankin called the fair “amazingly successful.” According to Lombardo, the expansive outdoor setup meant that there was at least one empty bookcase in between the cases filled with books, and the cash registers could be placed farther apart. And kids and families were respectful of mask-wearing and other safety precautions, remaining mindful of giving others space.

“The day of the event and afterward, everyone said thank you,” Rankin said. “They liked that we kept the tradition going of holding something in-person and that everyone got to go,” she added. “They especially enjoyed the wider range of books that we received, so that people who have older kids who maybe wouldn’t have come to the fair, were able to be together. It was like the book fair family night we had last year. And I think everyone was really happy to see each other.”

As Lombardo put it, “The main goal is to have kids excited for books and reading more than anything else. When you see kids coming up to the counter with stacks of books, or reading on the curb, that is what we’re looking for. To hear kids say, ‘Mom, look, we talked about this in school. Can I bring it home and we can read it together?’ was wonderful. The fair brought so much joy to everyone.”

Charting the Way Forward

Scholastic’s process for developing best practices during the pandemic “started with the needs of our educators and schools,” Quinton said. “When it became apparent this would last longer than any of us had hoped, we knew that a return to learning would look very different this year,” she added. “We reviewed school superintendents’ feedback about their likely return scenarios. We monitored national polls and news coverage, consulted with our own advisory councils of principals and teachers, and spoke with our customers directly to understand what would be top of mind for them and what their needs would be.” According to Quinton, those needs included safety concerns, space and time constraints, limited resources, and modified schedules, considering when, or whether, students would return to their classrooms. “We knew that we had to meet them where they would be this fall and offer solutions that addressed each of these specific concerns to be of the most service,” she said.

“We’ve also enhanced our focus on strategic partnerships with local businesses and nonprofits, to help address the economic impact of the pandemic,” Quinton said. “We understand the economic challenges so many families are facing now, and equally recognize the need for increased school fundraising and resources, given the incremental costs of keeping our students safe.”

She noted that the response from schools, educators, caregivers, and students has been enthusiastic. “Schools have loved the new options, which give them a lot of flexibility and can really work for any of their unique situations,” Quinton said. “For educators, the Scholastic Book Fair is about delivering a sense of normalcy that children and families need right now and helping them get back on the track of reading and learning. And from parents and kids, we’re hearing a lot about how much they’re enjoying the new virtual fair experience—plus the convenience of shipping straight to home.”

Quinton pointed to the drive-through model as a good example of responsiveness and agility by the company. “It originally included only pre-packaged book bundles, but we heard from families that they wanted individual choices for their child, so we modified the model to include a case of our bestselling titles,” she said. “Now students can choose from book packs or they can pick individual books for themselves, all from the safety of their cars.”

Though there has been a natural downturn in business this year given the spring shutdowns due to the pandemic and varied re-opening models for schools—Scholastic reports that book fair sales fell 52% during the quarter ending August 31, 2020 compared to a year ago—Quinton sounded a positive note looking forward. “We’ve been pleased with how quickly schools have adapted and embraced our new models,” she said. “Educators are incredibly determined to bring a Scholastic Book Fair to their students. We hear from so many of them that Book Fair Day is one of the best days of the year for many kids—and they recognize how much they need a sense of joy and normalcy now. They also understand how critical it is to get books into their students’ hands to help address the learning losses children face due to extended school closures.”