As the 2021–2022 school year comes to a close, we asked a number of school librarians to reflect on the year that was. We learned that even though it marked a return to in-person learning for most schools across the country, that rarely meant a return to normalcy.

“Challenging,” says Elissa Malespina, teacher librarian at Verona High School in Verona, N.J., about what it’s been like to be back in school this past year. “This has been a stressful time for all librarians and educators between still worrying about getting sick, other academic pressures, book censorship, and more; it’s been a really tough year.”

Steve Tetreault, co-librarian at the William R. Satz Middle School/Holmdel High School complex library in Holmdel, N.J., is on the same page. “This school year has been yet another iteration of a new and unexpected series of challenges and changes,” he says. “There have been many, many pushes from multiple directions to ‘get back to normal.’ Unfortunately, the ‘normal’ of the early 2019 school year is unlikely to be possible to recapture, for a multitude of reasons.”

The fact that the pandemic is ongoing is a major hurdle to normalcy, Tetreault notes, and in his district, continually fluctuating Covid spikes have created particularly difficult staffing challenges. “I know my district is not the only one that has seen lots of teachers out, and out much more frequently, either due to their own health issues or because they are taking care of ill family members,” he says. “There has also been a very high rate of retirement, which seems like it’s not slowing.”

Tetreault fears that this situation will continue to spiral. “With fewer teachers, there are stronger pressures on the remaining staff to fill in the gaps in instruction and in the behind-the-scenes tasks,” he says. “The job gets harder, the pay stays the same, and folks are going to keep retiring, which makes the job harder for those who are left.”

In light of personnel shortages, Tetreault’s district and others “have had a very difficult time ensuring that there is some kind of continuity of instruction, or even that there is an adult available to monitor students,” he explains. “Teachers are still trying to figure out how to deliver instruction when students continue to cycle through being virtual and then being in the building. Sometimes one period will be fully in person, the next mostly virtual, another mostly in person, and another fully virtual. It’s tremendously difficult to figure out how to vary instruction to meet the learning needs of these very different ways of interacting with students.”

Pointing to another wrinkle this year, Tetreault notes that his state pushed to reintroduce standardized testing. “Administering testing becomes particularly difficult when students are only allowed to take tests in person within the school building. Testing always means missing instructional days. But when students are out of the building during testing, they miss instruction to take make-up tests when they return. All of which is to say: this school year is another in a line of years unlike any other.”

Faith Huff is the librarian at Albermarle Road Middle School in Charlotte, N.C. “When we went back this year, it was like, ‘Wear a mask, but things are normal now. We’re going to have a normal school year,’ ” she says. “I feel like the whole year they’ve been gaslighting us, saying, ‘It’s normal.’ No, it’s not. Nothing about this school year has been normal. In fact, this year has been one of the hardest, because during the height of the pandemic we knew it was messy and we accepted it. Now we’re just expected to be past it.”

Huff cites an example of some of the confusion she faced: “At the start of the year, we had a mask mandate, and the district was really pushing social distancing, but class size did not really allow for that. So, from the very beginning, it was like, we can’t provide as safe an environment as we would like to—because how do we make this happen? I’m in an older building, which means classrooms are pretty small. How do you social-distance 30 kids in there?”

For Andrea Trudeau, library information specialist at Alan B. Shepard Middle School in Deerfield, Ill., this school year has been emotionally draining on a different level. She says that the lack of time educators have had for “rest, reflection, and recharging” since the pandemic hit has been damaging. “With so much uncertainty in the summer of 2020 and yet again in the summer of 2021, there weren’t opportunities to fully unwind in the summer months; these months were spent worrying about the year to come and what might be thrown at us next,” she adds. “As a result, the mental and emotional strain we felt at the end of each school year that, in years past, would dissipate during summer break, instead was compounded over two years, causing cognitive overload for educators at the start of this school year. The exhaustion and stress I felt and observed in others was unlike anything we have experienced in this field in the nearly quarter-decade I have been an educator. It’s truly inescapable collective trauma.”

Though it certainly has been trying for educators, the transition back to in-person learning did bring with it some more hopeful moments, as well. At Tazewell–New Tazewell Primary School in New Tazewell, Tenn., “this year started out pretty normal,” says librarian Blake Hopper. “We still weren’t allowed to do community events or have assemblies and we tried to stay in our areas. But as the year has progressed, we have slowly returned to normal, especially during the spring.” In a welcome change, he notes that his school hasn’t been closed for sickness this year, only for snow days. “For many students, this is the first normal year they have ever had. It has been heartwarming to see them get to experience things that they have never had the opportunity to experience. We are getting to show them how fun school and the library can be, and all the great things we can offer them.”

The dawn of a new day-to-day

Returning to school buildings full-time this past academic year has necessitated changes to librarians’ daily responsibilities. Some of the workload involves librarians taking additional sanitization measures and enforcing their district’s masking policies.

“I saw a lot of stuff, especially on social media about ‘the kids aren’t going to wear masks,’ ” Huff says. “The kids are fine. I never had a single issue. I tell them, ‘Sanitize as soon as you come in, then you can touch a book, and then sanitize on your way out the door’—and they’re fine with that.”

Though her district has a mask-optional policy now, Huff says most students are still masking up. “It honestly feels normal to me to see kids in masks and to have the hand sanitizer where they can use it 20 times while they’re in the library if they want to, and to wipe down the library books after they come in just in case, and to really be concerned about those shared spaces in a way that I probably should have been before. My mom and I joke all the time, like, ‘How gross were we? We would just go to buffets like wild people.’ ”

The extent of the changes to some library routines struck Huff recently during a photo shoot. “We took a picture of our student media assistants yesterday for the delayed yearbook,” she recalls. “It was the first time I had seen the majority of them without their masks—the photographer asked them to just take the mask off real quick for the picture, and then put it back on. I was looking around, and I thought, I don’t know what my students look like. That’s become the norm.”

The vigilance required to keep students focused on continued pandemic safety protocols can take a toll on educators. “Teachers are tired,” says K.C. Boyd, librarian at Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, D.C. “You can only say so many times, ‘Pull your mask up.’ Now it’s a choice in our district if the child wants to wear a mask or not, but just keeping kids distanced, and not on top of one another, and continuing to tell them about how important it is to be safe, wash your hands, the whole gamut—that’s tiring for teachers.”

Earlier in the pandemic, Hopper, like many of his fellow librarians, had to curtail most of his typical practices. “I was not able to do any group activities, schoolwide activities or assemblies, or community events. I didn’t have time to collaborate with teachers,” he says. “These things are tough to stop. My day consisted of quarantining books, wiping them, and keeping up with shelving.” Despite those limitations, he considers himself lucky that he was not called upon to substitute as a classroom teacher, and that his school’s library remained open.

There have been positive takeaways from this school year, too. In the past few months, Hopper says Covid cases have dropped to near zero in his school community. “We are able to do group activities, I go in and out of classrooms more, we were allowed to have family night at the book fair, and my students were finally able to experience an author visit,” he adds. “It’s made my librarian heart so happy! We do clean a lot more. We wipe down more in between classes, use hand sanitizer more, and generally pay more attention to if we are feeling well or not. I also focus more on social-emotional learning and making sure our library collection has resources to support this.”

Malespina notes that her space was coopted during the height of the pandemic. “I had other classes in my library so it was not being used as a library,” she says. “This year we only have two classes in the learning commons, so I am happy to have things back to almost normal. I love being able to help students look for books and teach classes to them in person instead of on a screen.”

Balancing technology

One of the better-known stories to come out of the Covid lockdown period was the pivot that educators made to provide remote learning for their students when schools were closed. Many of the librarians we spoke with characterized how this affected their everyday work.

“I was a dining room librarian—working remotely from my dining room table to support teaching and learning,” Trudeau says. “A large percentage of my time was spent behind the scenes supporting teachers by teaching them how to use various technology tools, curating and acquiring resources for instructional use, and creating screencast videos for teacher and student use. This was an immense task and, at times, felt like building lessons and units from scratch. As a result, my job really was all about ‘survival mode’—doing what it takes to get teachers and students the very basic resources and tools they needed in that new mode of remote learning.”

Trudeau’s school is now “moving back to the version of school we had before Mar. 13, 2020,” she says. “This means still supporting the behind-the-scenes work but also much more face-to-face time with students, which is the part of my job I treasure the most.”

This school year, she notes, “one of the biggest shifts I’ve observed in my work is both teachers and students embracing digital resources more. In the past, students seemed fairly uninterested in or even resistant to using e-books. Once they were essentially forced to use these since they were the only option in remote instruction, this format has become much more palatable to students. In a recent survey of my students, more than 50% claimed they preferred e-resources for research due to the accessibility options that come with these tools—up from about 10% in previous years. This certainly shifts my collection development and allocation of funds for resource acquisition.”

Trudeau says that the pandemic has also altered the concept of accessibility in her school’s library. Before the lockdown, she explains, “accessibility emphasized instructional tools and resources that were, for the most part, utilized in school.” But after her students were learning remotely, the idea of library accessibility substantially broadened. She highlights a few examples, including offering various options for participation in such library programs as the monthly First Fridays Open Mic talent show, where students can use in-person or virtual platforms to showcase their acts.

For Trudeau, increased accessibility also means “providing a lifeline to students through SEL bookplates we place on the blank page in the front of the book, so students can get hotline information they need about topics they are reading about.” Additionally, she believes that a virtual school library that can be explored from home enables more families “to see the invaluable work we do in the school library.”

Boyd agrees that changes in accessibility and the increased use of technology have helped to shine a light on the critical role of school librarians. “During the pandemic, folks were not certain how we could be utilized,” she says. “And then we started showing our work when it came to assisting teachers who were not familiar with Microsoft Teams, instructing them on how to teach virtually, and getting kids into e-book reading, to keep them engaged in reading.”

When everyone was back in the classroom this year, “what was interesting was that there was a more heightened emphasis on, and also appreciation and enthusiasm for embracing e-book platforms as well as the print platform,” Boyd says. “So that was a quite positive thing.”

Boyd adds that since returning to school, “I’ve had more teachers ask me to come in and not only do activities for lessons dealing with research, but also just simple inquiry in the classroom, along with book talks that are aligned with the curriculum.” And lastly, she’s very excited that her day-to-day again includes in-person, hands-on learning happening in the library’s makerspace.

Huff is another librarian who has seen her technology responsibilities shift dramatically in the past couple of years. “Before the pandemic, I was at a school where I was mostly the person in charge of technology as the librarian. But that was a sidebar role, maybe 25% of the work; mostly I was doing face-to-face stuff with kids throughout the day. In the pandemic, that totally flipped, and technology became my entire job. I was begging people to collaborate with me, but everybody was so overwhelmed. The things that I had been trying to get them to do for years—using various websites and learning management systems that we had in place—they weren’t interested. Then all of a sudden, that’s all they wanted to do, and they didn’t have time for anything else.”

Things flipped again when Huff moved to a new position. “This is my first year at a school where they have a full-time instructional technology facilitator,” she says, “so I haven’t had technology on my plate at all this year. But I feel like we kind of all got backed into corners where our priorities shifted to technology to the point where now that we have kids in person, we’ve almost forgotten how to do the other stuff.”

At Tetreault’s school, “there’s been a bit of a backlash to the use of technology,” he says. “Interestingly, students seem more focused on games and social media than ever but seem less engaged with productivity tools. Many teachers seem to want to move away from screens as much as is practical, partly for their own sakes and partly for the sakes of their students.”

Are the kids alright?

The librarians we spoke with also shared their observations of what the return to in-person learning has been like for their students.

“We have kids who are getting accustomed to being around other kids again,” Boyd says. “These are middle schoolers. A lot of them are very playful and very physical in terms of roughhousing. This is the age that they’re like this, but it is heightened because it’s kind of like they’re catching up from missed time. We do have some altercations and kids are relearning how to get along and resolve conflicts.”

Boyd adds that her school does have a percentage of kids who are dealing with significant trauma. “Some students have lost relatives and friends from the pandemic,” she says. “Our school is like any other middle school across the country; our kids are struggling. We have six to eight weeks of school left; we’re just trying to make it through.”

As Huff puts it, “Middle school kids are kind of the same everywhere you go. It is a weird time to be a kid.” When she compares her current students to previous ones, there are some clear differences. “Most of my teaching career before I was in the library was as a sixth grade teacher. But these sixth graders do not act like sixth graders.”

Huff believes this is part of the ripple effect of kids being away from each other for so long. As an example, she describes her experience with an “open lunch” program she has in the library. “You can just come and bring your lunch and hang out,” she says. “I have games, and sometimes we do activities, but you can just come hang out for lunch. They were acting like elementary schoolers, they were running and screaming through the library, they were throwing food, they were wrestling each other.” And they weren’t too upset about her threats to throw them out of the library.

“There’s this mentality of there being no consequences—because last year, there wasn’t really,” Huff says. “They’ve missed a full year of in-person interaction, and they’ve missed those upper elementary school years where they practice for middle school and mature a little and figure out who they are and what they want. They’re still trying to catch up socially. I would imagine, for the next couple of years, it will feel like that because anybody who missed some of those pivotal grades, those are really important years for social-emotional growth.”

In Tetreault’s view, “The students seem to have a very different relationship to school. There are way more discipline issues than before. And I’ve never seen so many students so disengaged from their schooling.” He believes that the direct cause of these behaviors is not easy to pinpoint. “It’s unclear whether these are results of some of them not being in a physical setting for such an extended time and thereby ‘falling out of the habit’ of school, whether it’s a manifestation of the stresses of the ongoing pandemic and societal conflicts that have been ongoing for a while now, or if students are seeing school in a different way—having had more than a year of managing their own daily school lives without much or any oversight from adults—that schools haven’t yet caught up with.”

Trudeau has observed other new student behaviors as well. “Students really struggle to focus,” she notes. “They are much more antsy and demonstrate a greater need for movement breaks and fidget toys. They are more impulsive than they were previously and even struggle a bit with their interaction with others and their own emotional regulation.”

Trudeau and her colleagues are working to help students relearn some of the social skills they may have forgotten. “I have faith that we will get there,” she says. “It’s all about rebuilding those powerful connections and relationships with them, which may just take some time.”

At the high school level, Malespina notes, “The kids are not okay. Many more are struggling with social and emotional issues and many are behind behaviorally. They are not used to interacting with adults and students and it’s been a hard adjustment for many of them.”

“Academics have been a struggle!” Hopper shares. “Procedures have been a struggle! Some of the younger kids had never been to school before. SEL has been a struggle. Our students did not see any consistency over the last two years. It is so sad to think about all that the students have been through.”

However, Hopper has also observed some silver linings. “Our students seem to be feeling much better this year,” he says. “I have even noticed that our students are reading more and working together more. This has made a huge difference in their attitudes. They can finally feel relaxed and ‘normal.’ ”

Trudeau has witnessed several changes in kids since the height of the pandemic. “Most notably, the excitement has returned to our school,” she says. “For the most part, students are happy to be in school and be with each other learning in our classrooms and library. There’s an energy you can feel throughout the learning spaces that is electric—and it’s the sort of energy that fuels all of us each day. I’m so grateful this has returned!”

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