My Turn: School Librarianship During a Pandemic
September 1, 2021
Leah Gregory, Mascoutah Middle School
I am a middle school librarian at Mascoutah Middle School in Mascoutah, Illinois. Like many other professions, the day-to-day life of a school librarian was upended completely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not everyone realizes that school librarians have two, and sometimes three, completely different sets of patrons. First and foremost are the kids, the students, the reason we get out of bed every day! Second, are the teachers. I consider keeping the teachers happy one of the most significant parts of my job. And finally: the administrators, both in the building and in the district. When the pandemic hit and schools were closed, all three sets of patrons had immediate, differing, urgent needs that I had to juggle. I was blindsided, just like everyone else, immediately wondering how I would keep the library going and help everyone through the upheaval.
Librarianship is a service profession, and while I may not be central to the pandemic like healthcare workers, I certainly tried to keep our school and library program operating.
Empty Mascoutah Middle School Library during the pandemic.
At first, our district was entirely remote. The students left with their library books and whatever else they had when they went home the night before. In mid-March 2020, no one was sure if touching contaminated surfaces transmitted the virus, so our district prohibited checking out books. I immediately went to work ordering e-books. Our e-book collection has always been on the small side for two reasons. First, before we went 1-to-1 (meaning, each student has access to a device), there was no reliable way for students to access e-books. Second, our print material circulation was through the roof with a robust library program in place and a healthy reading culture. Students never seemed interested in e-books, no matter how much I tried to promote them. When faced with no other choice, many students became e-book converts overnight! This, however, presented a problem of how to train students to use the e-books we had available. In the past, I always showed interested students in person how to access our digital books. Thus began a mixture of joining Zoom classes to help teachers and students understand this new access and updating the library website constantly with how-to videos, virtual instructions, and step-by-step guides. My initial e-book purchases were primarily duplicates of extremely popular print books in our collection. As time went on, I began to better understand what kids wanted in an e-book.
Also, in those first early days, teachers were scrambling with how to teach reading virtually. We didn’t know if we could record ourselves reading aloud or if copyright rules prohibited that. We didn’t have digital copies of classroom novels. I spent a lot of time searching copyright laws and calling or emailing publishers about permission to record read-alouds of various books. Luckily, publishers and authors came around really quickly and jumped on board to make this process easier. Also, almost daily, I was juggling requests from the administration asking whether teachers could share workbook pages or whether one thing or another was a violation of copyright law. Every day brought a new set of unknowns we were trying to navigate. I have never spent so much time mired in copyright law.
Once school was over for the 2019/2020 school year, my immediate focus became trying to get back all the library books that had gone home in March. I’m still working on this. I have a steady rotation of tactics to try to get back these books, resorting to bribery, nagging, incentives, fees, begging, and so on. I have always been a proponent of forgiving lost book fees when I can because it’s a bit of the cost of doing business as a library, and my goal is never to make it difficult for a student to check out a book. However, the mass exodus of so many books at one time was more than my library budget could bear to lose, so I am still working on that effect of the pandemic.
When we returned to school in the fall, we were a hybrid school. We had students coming on A/B days for a shortened school day, with about 30% of our students remaining fully remote. Our administration initially did not see a way to circulate books. Still, with some complex research done by me and our high school librarian into the REALM project conducted by IMLS in order to assess the danger of virus transmissibility via library materials, we were able to get approval for a book delivery/pick up program while quarantining materials for five days after getting them back. This change caused another scramble to train students to request books and understand how they would be delivered and returned. We had remote students picking up books from the office.
One of my favorite parts of my job is talking books with kids and trying to hook them into reading particular ones. I usually do this in person, in an unofficial capacity, as we chat while they browse or check out books. I really felt the loss of not talking to the kids, so I began e-book talks, posting a new video every day talking about a new e-book. I also contributed to First Chapter Fridays, a program our eighth-grade English Language Arts teachers started to get kids talking about new books. I created a virtual library and posted my bitmoji everywhere I could—linking the virtual library to every single team and teacher page. I also held Zoom office hours every afternoon when the teachers finished with Zoom for the day. I made it a help-desk Zoom—students and parents could hop on my Zoom meeting, which was open every day from 1-3 P.M. to ask any question, not just library-related ones. I helped many students reach virtual tech support, or reset passwords for various applications they needed to get into, or directed students to their teacher’s office hours. I tried to be a friendly, helpful voice for everyone who had no idea what was going on, which was pretty much everyone!
I enjoy a great relationship with the teachers in our school, and I frequently collaborate with them in research units or information literacy units. With everyone trying to keep movement around the school to a minimum, that meant taking the research to them. At first, it was all virtual, which luckily was relatively easy since I had converted most of our reference material to virtual formats several years ago. I also used technology such as Google Classroom, Google Forms, Nearpod, and Loom, to make research easier for students. We adapted, revised, shifted, and changed almost every lesson or unit we taught, so it could work remotely and in-person while still keeping the library portion virtual.
One of my job duties has always been helping to set up online scheduling for parent-teacher conferences in October. Usually, this is a pretty straightforward, though time-consuming, task. This past year, however, I had to help figure out how to send all those hundreds of parents to the correct Zoom meeting on the right day at the right time. I embraced many new technology tools for mass emails and virtually visited each teacher’s Zoom meeting to ensure there would be no problems. At the last minute, we discovered a glitch where some teachers’ Zoom meetings had not been made public, so I ran crazily around the building visiting each teacher’s classroom to make sure they knew how to do it. I also gave out my cell phone number for the evening so teachers could reach me if there were significant problems. Luckily, the conferences passed smoothly, and other than a few new gray hairs, I was none the worse for the wear.
As fall became winter, the COVID rate in our county spiked, and we began having pretty regular exposures, necessitating quarantines. While I never was exposed and never had to quarantine, this affected me because I, along with the physical education teachers, counselors, and social workers, was put into a rotation as a substitute teacher for the quarantined faculty. Many days, they could work from home but still needed a body in the classroom to supervise in-person students. This rotation of subs was constantly pulled into unfamiliar schedules and classrooms, trying to keep the doors to the school open.
In January, we went to all-remote classes for one week on each side of our Christmas break to allow students and teachers to quarantine if they had visited family during the holidays. Remote classes were a welcome respite to the hectic pace. The break was helpful because we opened on January 22 to a regular schedule, with all in-person students coming to school every day while still on a shortened schedule. Teachers juggled their classrooms to allow more students in with three feet of physical distancing and made it work. This was the beginning of getting some normalcy back to school, but the library remained delivery-only through the end of the school year. As of this writing, our district is back this fall to a regular schedule and plans a traditional school year. I really, really hope that we can achieve that!