Hilary Misle

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

School Librarians Play Critical Pandemic Role

You could say that the dress rehearsal is over.

For years, they have been weaving 21st Century skills into lessons about research and digital literacy while squeezing in time for book talks and read alouds. They have been at the forefront of the latest technology, evaluating resources that support curriculum while keeping collections current.

Now, still recovering from an academic year like no other in recent memory as they prepare to dive right back into more uncertainty with the new term, the curtain is rising and there is a spotlight on the leadership role of school librarians, who are uniquely positioned to support a wide range of needs as communities grapple with learning during a global pandemic. They may be among the best prepared educators when it comes to adapting to a new model of learning.

“All of the pieces when it comes to inquiry instruction, digital citizenship, are wheelhouses for school librarians,” said Courtney Pentland, school librarian in Lincoln, Nebraska, and adjunct professor for the Library Sciences Program
 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Perhaps the only certainty right now is that all stakeholders in the school community — students, parents, educators, staff, and everyone else — must continue to adapt. And although it is overwhelming, Arkansas school librarian Ashley Cooksey has some tough-love advice: “STOP COMPLAINING!!! Start doing. You don’t have to be Super Librarian, but not reaching out, not working with other educators, not branching out and discovering new things . . . that’s hurting you and our profession as a whole.”

No matter how different this year may look, librarians remain an essential part of the school calculus, even if most learning occurs remotely. Especially if most learning is remote.

School librarians are essential in promoting literacy and in supporting instruction. During the Covid-19 crisis, it might be somewhat easier for people to wrap their heads around purchasing additional ebooks or putting together bags of books to pick up, Pentland said. “Whereas the instructional part will take a little more work and effort.”

Adding to the challenge is the fact that in some buildings, school librarians are not necessarily considered teachers or as part of the instructional framework. If that’s the case, the changed academic landscape due to the pandemic may be the perfect opportunity for librarians to reach out and collaborate

Both Pentland and Cooksey agree that rather than asking teachers and administrators how they can help them, librarians should approach their colleagues with a list of how they can offer support. 

“Your administrator may not know all the things you can do — they have such a big list of worries,” Pentland said. “It’s much easier to edit a list that exists than to create one.”

Cooksey added, “Coming in with a solution is much better than waiting for someone to tell you what to do.”

In terms of support, Pentland suggests presenting school stakeholders with a “menu of possibilities that they have available to them.” 

Supporting Instruction During Covid:

According to Cooksey, librarians should be seen as resources for their colleagues as they adapt their curriculum for online learning or other forms of instruction. 

“With classroom teachers needing sets of books to study with students or simultaneous logins for digital texts, school librarians are a great resource to locate, subscribe, and bring those products to their teachers and students,” she said.

Pentland points out that learning has never been completely equitable, and the pandemic has exacerbated discrepancies within school communities. “How do we fit instruction that honors students’ needs and access while still providing them with a high standard learning environment?”

Menu for Supporting Instruction:

  • Differentiation: Librarians already see and work with everyone in the building, so they are well-positioned to adapt the new learning environment to meet a range of student needs. “Differentiation and adaptability are just natural pieces of their daily instruction,” Pentland said.
  • Co-teaching: Two teachers are often better than one inside the classroom, and the advantages of working together can be even more stark in the virtual learning environment. While one educator is presenting, the colleague can monitor students, offer individual support, and troubleshoot technical issues.
  • Digital & Curricular Knowledge: School librarians already are pretty savvy about the digital resources available, both through the school and outside it. Now more than ever, it’s essential having someone who can pair online resources with curricular requirements.

Supporting Literacy During Covid:

It’s crucial that students continue to read, even if they can’t browse the bookshelves for a while. “Definitely advocate for the purchase of a digital reading platform,” Cooksey said. Two years ago, she partnered with the local library to provide a digital library card to all students in grades 6-12, granting them access to all of the public institution’s ebooks and audiobooks. Those students already had access to school-issued devices, and now they can get their hands on thousands of digital content titles. 

Menu for Supporting Literacy:

  • Create virtual spaces that support reading across the curriculum.
  • Ensure digital content is relevant and up-to-date.
  • See which digital reading platforms are available through the library’s card catalog manager. 
  • Participate in PLNs on social media to get ideas and ask questions. 
  • Search for webinars that address our current moment. “Don’t wait until you need to know,” Cooksey said. “Be prepared to shift at any moment. The knowledge you gain can help you better support teachers now, as well.” 
  • Be an advocate for copyright and fair use. Some publishers have given special permission to record read alouds and to post them to closed systems, like Google Classroom. “This doesn’t give free rein to record all books and post them on YouTube,” she said. “It does, however, mean that you can record read alouds, with permission and citations to the publisher, and post them to private places that require students to log in to view them.”

Cooksey reminds us that librarians should continue to advocate for student safety, as we are relying more and more on digital resources. “Many tech tools are fantastic but do not pledge to keep student information private,” she said. “Knowing how to locate that information for teachers or sharing safe websites is a must!”

She recommends taking a critical look at the privacy statement of any website that requires students to sign up. “If students are under 13, you definitely need to advocate for single sign-on servers like Clever or sign up through Google Classroom.” She uses studentprivacypledge.org.

Finally, it’s important to invest in and promote resources that students and teachers actually will use. Cooksey recommends using a link tracker like bit.ly on all library content, website, and social media posts so she can see how many people are clicking links. “Evaluate where your money is going as far as current subscriptions,” she said. “Are they really being used enough by teachers to justify spending that money there OR could you use it for something else that would benefit more students?”

To Learn More:

Courtney Pentland is the high school librarian at North Star High School in Lincoln, Nebraska. She is adjunct faculty for the University of Nebraska-Omaha Library Sciences program, a blogger for AASL Knowledge Quest, and is the AASL Liaison and PD Committee Chair for the Nebraska School Librarians Association. Follow her adventures on Twitter @livluvlibrary.

Ashley J. Cooksey is a school librarian in Arkansas, a Knowledge Quest Blogger, and member of AAIM, ArLA, ALA/AASL, and ISTE. Follow her on Twitter @AshleyCooksey2.

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