A school librarian's expertise, guidance, and support is instrumental in ensuring not only that children receive the best education possible, but also that a school runs as it should. While there is no doubt things will change this year, just how school libraries will change during COVID-19 truly depends on the individual school.
As a high school librarian, Kathy Carroll, president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), tells Romper by phone that she still doesn’t know exactly what the year will look like as changes at the district and state level continue to roll in. But, she says with confidence that librarians will still be there to support the students, staff, and parents who depend on them.
"Regardless of how the year begins, we’re going to serve in our traditional roles which are as instructional partners, teachers, leaders, information specialists, program administrators — everything," she says. "It is still going to be the same high-level quality of professionalism, and we’re still going to have the same impact that we do on students, but it’s just going to look vastly different across the country."
So, whether through virtual learning, hybrid instruction, or face-to-face, just what can parents expect this year? Carroll says librarians are "going in with a sense of uncertainty, but also with purpose so that regardless of what this looks like, we're going to provide excellent service to everyone involved." While it is difficult to give a clear picture of exactly what each library will look like — the exact process for checking out books, returning, accessing technology, etc. will vary — the mission of librarians everywhere remains the same.
"As schools moved rapidly to all-virtual instruction, school librarians across the country stepped up to do what they do best: identify and evaluate high-quality instructional supports while helping students and their families with individualized learning," John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary and the EveryLibrary Institute tells Romper.
Both Chrastka and Carroll explain that as schools shuttered across the country last spring, school librarians stepped up to make and hand-deliver packets to students with limited or no access to technology, helped teachers create their virtual classrooms, and even recorded videos of themselves reading book that parents could show their kids at home. This year, they'll be doing more of the same.
Carroll says that the AASL currently has a three-tiered plan in place with a myriad of resources available to guide educators through whatever the pandemic may throw at them this coming school year. For face-to-face instruction, for example, there are plans in place to safely institute professional development, collaboration, technology and access, but she says they also will keep "an eye to the future in case it shifts because even if we go back face-to-face, there’s no assurance that it’s going to remain that way.”
With virtual learning, Chrastka explains that many educators will continue to utilize and perfect many of the innovative processes they began to implement in the spring. "We’ve seen stories from librarian colleagues who are doing virtual office hours on Zoom, who are running their clubs and specials through Facebook live events, and who curate content through highly interactive tools like Flipgrid," he says. "But the biggest opportunities we have seen school librarians embrace during virtual learning are focused on the basics of literacy, learning, reading, and comprehension."
The focus on literacy that Chrastka mentions will be integral in helping students recover from what educators are calling the "COVID slide" — a more severe loss of skills than the typical "summer slide" some students experience between school years. "Early estimates suggest that students will return to school in the fall with as much as a 30% fall-off in their reading skills and a 50% drop in their math skills," Chrastka explains.
Although there is much uncertainty around online learning, Chrastka points out that there are also some advantages to this method of instruction for librarians. "If every school is online, there are tremendous opportunities for librarians to create long-distance discussions between students across the country — and even around the world," he says. "There is something quite powerful about bringing students together from different locations to talk about literature, create stories, share experiences, and dive deeply into research and inquiry. As co-teachers, school librarians bring these perspectives into the online classroom and can network across district boundaries."
To help get a grasp on exactly what librarians, students, and families all need during this unprecedented time, Carroll says the AASL is in near-constant communication with the community through frequent town hall meetings. As parents, supporting your child's school librarian right now is more important than ever, and Carroll says, "communication is key" and that this is a "prime opportunity for advocacy."
"I think right now is a time for parents to make their voices heard. They need to let everyone know how important they are to their child's education. Because this is a time where people are re-evaluating many things and sometimes your foundational people — the people who are most important — can be overlooked because they're so proficient and they're such experts at what they do that you just take it for granted," Carroll says.
Even pre-pandemic, the job of a school librarian was already hanging by a thread. In 2019, Bloomberg reported that more than 9,000 full-time equivalent librarian roles were eliminated between 2009 and 2016. Citing budget cuts and a reduction of public school funding as driving forces, a shift in educational priorities also sees multiple districts doing away with the all-important role in recent years.
In addition to voicing concerns to administrators, through voting and through public conversation, Carroll says that librarians want to hear from parents directly about how to best serve their children. "We just need communication and support."
My elementary school librarian, Mr. Thomas, was one of the most influential educators of my academic career. I could write for days about his inspiring words of wisdom and infectious enthusiasm for learning. Without librarians, who would peer into the depths of a child's imagination and insist that they not only polish their reading comprehension skills until they shine, but also enjoy the ride? Without librarians, who would guide teachers through such a major technological shift?
During this time of great uncertainty, we don't yet know all of the ways that school libraries will change. We do know, however, that the job of a school librarian will continue to be one of the utmost importance.
Kathy Carroll, President, American Association of School Librarians