School libraries play a pivotal role in school buildings and communities--what direction will they take as schools return to in-person learning?

A tale of three cities: Emerging from the pandemic…or not

School libraries play a pivotal role in school buildings and communities--what direction will they take as schools return to in-person learning?

New York City, New York. Cleveland, Ohio. Williamston, South Carolina.

In the height of the pandemic, nearly every community looked similar. Schools were closed.  Restaurants were closed. Families stayed home. 

As our world is emerging from the pandemic, there is a distinct division in our communities that was clearly articulated by the three librarians who participated in a recent panel for publishers who create content for schools and public libraries.

Let’s take a trip down the Eastern part of our country starting in New York and share what we learned at a recent publishers’ panel about teaching and learning in American schools.

Melissa Jacobs, the Director of Library Services in New York City, joined the panel from her private office wearing a mandated mask. She says, “Life in New York City is very masked up while we are attempting to navigate chaos. We’re in crisis mode.” 

New York City schools are managing staffing shortages and vaccine mandates. Jacobs says she’s living hour by hour and hasn’t slept well in weeks because her team has four people out and those who are working are waiting to find out if they’re going to be redeployed to schools due to teachers and administrators refusing the vaccine. Jacobs spent her weekend waiting to find out if she would go to work Monday in her current job or as an assistant principal or first grade teacher.

In Ohio, Felton Thomas’ public library system is open for patrons but has yet to get back to full capacity.  As the Director of Cleveland Public Libraries, Felton is emerging from the pandemic wearing a new hat—supporting local high schools where the school district chose to shut down 30 school libraries and repurpose them as community/career centers. Felton explains, “This isn’t something I’m supportive of; but I have to support it. Schools are looking to transform themselves in many ways. Unfortunately, that’s come in the form of the school libraries in our high schools.”

Starting this school year, Felton’s public librarians are meeting with their local high schools to figure out how to get print resources to students and teachers where the school library is no longer an option. The public library is now dropping off piles of novels or working with teachers to encourage students to come to the public library to pick up books they need. Felton explains, “We’re going to have to buy differently.  Students and teachers used to walk down to the library to get what they need. But this is the wave of the future for Cleveland schools right now.”

This news frustrated Jacobs, a vocal advocate for the role of the school librarian, “School libraries extend beyond the books on the shelf. It’s an unfortunate choice. The school librarian is a teacher who is familiar with curriculum and instruction and is not grading students but teaching them.”

Meanwhile in Anderson School District in South Carolina, Tamara Cox says life is as back to normal as it’s been in two years. “We’re living in a world where we are acting like there’s no pandemic,” said Cox. “Our lack of pandemic protocols and low vaccination rates is dragging this on longer than anyone would like.”

Cox’s librarians haven’t started ordering books for this school year as they are covering classes because the district can’t find substitute teachers. Yet, once they have time to focus on ordering, Cox is optimistic because her budget has increased. “I need to replace the books that were lost through the pandemic,” she said. “Then I need to get all the print books students are excited about and asking for.  Finally, I will spend my remaining budget on digital resources.” 

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Britten Follett
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