The Recent Past and The Near Future
When we say “beyond this crisis,” some may ask which one? We are entering the third year of a global pandemic. The pandemic isolation and current political environment have further exacerbated polarization. And educators are facing a dual crisis of profound pandemic learning loss coupled with generally being undervalued in the profession. Some school librarians think that specializing in one area like literacy or technology is necessary to stay relevant and valuable. Others take pride in the many hats they wear. The answer for these crises might be somewhere in between.
The 2020-2021 School Year
The NCES surveyed fourth- and eighth-grade students in February 2021. The survey gives us a snapshot of what last year’s school term looked like across the nation. Some 43% were enrolled in complete remote instruction, 21% participated in hybrid instruction where they attended in-person for a portion of the time, and online classes for a part of the time. And 35% experienced in-person instruction. Though this may have been the most successful format, there were obstacles to overcome, like hearing the teacher through a mask and being cooperative with a teacher also teaching a distance-learning audience.
Knowing how school libraries functioned amidst these constraints is essential. Some surveys reporting this data include:
The standout information from these surveys is that school librarians took on new responsibilities during the pandemic. So now might be a crucial time for reflection to make sure new responsibilities add to or subtract from the school library’s mission and vision.
The 2021-2022 School Year
Many parents and teachers hoped that the 2021-22 school year would be a relief. However, teachers across the country have expressed that the year has been the toughest of their careers. Students have two years of academic gaps; they also are behind behaviorally and developmentally. For example, middle school teachers cope with behaviors typically seen in elementary schools, and high school teachers see behaviors typical in middle schools. For more about the struggles of classroom teachers, read or listen to these NPR reports.
- “Teachers Thought 2021 Would Be Better. Instead, Some Say It’s Their Toughest Year Yet”
- “Here’s What Schools Are Doing to Try to Address Students’ Social-Emotional Needs”
Some school libraries may be experiencing these behavioral issues and are struggling with classroom/library management. Another concern is that book selection may need to change considering a different literacy level than students pre-pandemic. Additionally, with all the pressures that teachers have to cover their content, they may be unwilling to give up classroom time for collaboration with the school library. Therefore, we may need to work on creative ways to collaborate with classroom teachers.
Challenges and Opportunities for 2022 and Beyond in School Libraries
A Challenge and an Opportunity in How We Care for Children
As I talked to other school librarians, it was evident that we are all concerned about how we provide for the children and young adults in our care. We see all the physical needs like nutrition, health concerns, and the technology available at home when we helped with curbside school lunches and delivered books and helped those students working through the social and emotional strain families have experienced with sickness and even the death of loved ones. Providing for students’ needs as it relates to the school library is essential. Still, we need to rely on other school professionals outside of our library expertise like counselors, nutritionists, and administration. This work with other school professionals may be a new collaboration line for some school librarians.
The Challenge of Facing Book Bans
The pandemic has also brought with it the charged political environment. Parents and governments want to be involved in the school curriculum and selection policies of classroom and school libraries, to the extent that more than 20 states are crafting laws restricting teaching on the concept of race. This type of restriction is especially concerning when we think about access to information and cutting off access. In addition to curricular control, legislators are creating lists of materials to pull from both classrooms and school libraries. For example, the American Library Association tweeted, “We’ve seen a three-fold increase in the number of daily book challenges being reported to ALA compared to the same period last year.” Unfortunately, the materials on these lists represent many disenfranchised groups.
In his late-night interview with Stephen Colbert, Jason Reynolds could not have said it better regarding banning books in school libraries when he said being on the banned books list is “not a badge of honor.” Reynolds expresses deep concern that access cut for young people is never a good thing and that many times, there are no community alternatives for students who cannot afford to purchase the books for themselves.
The pandemic and book bans are a one-two punch for some. A report from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights acknowledges those entering the pandemic with the fewest opportunities are at risk of leaving with even less.”First, the pandemic posed profound challenges for nearly all students and schools in every part of our country; and second, the disparities in students’ experiences are stark.” Access for all students should be a primary defense against banning books.
Future of College and Career Preparation
We must acknowledge that college and career preparation techniques may need to change. Parents, teachers, and counselors welcomed the test-optional idea before the pandemic. However, schools may require data to ensure students are on track given pandemic learning loss. As much as we loathe standardized tests, we need some measures to help students address gaps in their learning. Listen intently to your teachers and administrators to see how the library can help with learning loss. Also, this spring, check out a new title from ALA, Assessing Learners: Using the AASL Standards to Measure Competency and Growth.
In closing, I believe the profession’s future depends on the flexibility of school librarians. But we also must realize that we cannot do everything. Can we change and grow with our schools in 2022? Do we accept the fifth law of librarianship, “The Library Is A Growing Organism?” We must find creative new ways to champion and teach reading, research, and information literacy while assisting our students and teachers in this ever-changing environment. If we do, there is hope and opportunity.
Author: Hannah Byrd Little
Hello, I am the Library Director at The Webb School of Bell Buckle. I use my past experience in college and university libraries to help my current students in school libraries transition into college, career, and life. I am currently the lead Senior Class Adviser for the Capstone Project. I also served at the state level with the Tennessee Association of School Librarians executive board from 2009-2013 and was the TASL president in 2012. I am certified as a Library Information Specialist for PreK-12th grade, have a BS in Communications with a concentration in Advertising and Public Relations, a BS in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Education and Information Systems and a Masters in Library and Information Science.