Pandemic Preparedness for School Libraries

I can’t believe it was only a few weeks ago that I was meeting friends at the Museum of Natural History to see a new exhibit. We had lunch and walked around without a thought about societal upending. Later that week, I led two workshops and helped a librarian weed an extremely outdated collection. COVID-19 was in NYC, moving stealthy and leaving its mark. We canceled workshops as venues closed but were still unaware of what was to come.

Then the bottom fell out.

Sunday night, the mayor announced schools in NYC would close the following day. Teachers would have a week to learn how to do remote learning for 1.1 million students.

Being Prepared

I think the best response of a capable educator is someone who focuses on student learning no matter what. While some educators lamented the influx of e-mails, technology directives, and response time to take students online, others took on the challenge of learning the best practices and tools for teaching students in a virtual environment.

The Individual Class

None of this work is easy. Switching instruction from in-person to Google Classroom, for example, involves a lot of thought and preparation: how to manage student accounts and work, design lessons, post content, communicate, guide discussions and responses, give useful feedback, and grade work. And that’s just for one class. Some pointers to keep in mind:

  • It’s nice to take a short video of yourself to set the context for the lesson and focus on key ideas and concepts and to maintain/build rapport with students. Video conferencing directly with students can be fraught for privacy reasons, mandated reporting (if you see something you shouldn’t see), etc. I think pre-recording mini-lectures or introductions is the better option.
  • Make sure to list learning objectives and goals. Virtual learning is a text-rich environment, so take advantage of this feature by being clear about your expectations about what students will learn, discuss, and do.
  • Post engaging and interactive content to maintain focus: videos, images/memes, slide shows, games, quizzes, engaging reads, and open-ended prompts.
  • Have clear assignment task(s): activities, discussion(s), and a reflection piece.
  • Give students one thread with two questions/prompts to answer so they have a choice. Require them to respond to at least two other posts from classmates to facilitate an active discussion.
  • Consider adding additional content for exploration with a “Deepen your Understanding” section.
  • Consider inserting a challenging question “theme” to give students a focus and things to think about as they go through the lesson(s)/unit.
  • Include examples of every assignment to show your expectations: an example of a discussion response, post, reflection, and task to model it for students since doing so in real time is more complicated.

Resource Curator

By now, you know numerous vendors from BrainPop to Newsbank will allow students and teachers to use their content for free until the end of this school year. While educators welcome this unprecedented access to quality content, it is overwhelming. Take on the role of resource curator by using tools such as Wakelet,, or Destiny Discover Collections to vet content and organize it by grade level, content area, and purpose. But it’s not enough to compile a list; create short videos using QuickTime or another tool, make Slideshare or Prezi presentations, or host a Zoom session to show teachers how to integrate a video from BrainPop into their assignment on COVID-19, or how to differentiate a Newsela article by reading level and adding text-dependent questions.

Technology Specialist

Many of us have taken on the role of tech specialists over the years. Now is the optimum time to take the lead to show your teachers how to use Google Classroom, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, or any of the multitudes of digital tools available for online learning.  Build your knowledge by taking webinars, watching how-to videos, and joining virtual communities of practice for tips, suggestions, and advice.

Connecting with Students

Many of us wonder how to connect with students if we have an open-access schedule with no assigned classes. Now is the perfect time to collaborate with teachers, who will undoubtedly welcome all the support and advice they can get. Consider connecting with students directly! Host a virtual book club or author Skype session. Suggest e-books and content on social media tools like Instagram as you would in person. Revamp your website to make it more dynamic and interactive. Create an “Ask a Librarian” form to encourage reference questions, book suggestions, and to build relationships and rapport with your school community. Make it clear how people can contact you and when with “Virtual Office Hours” displayed on a Google Calendar.


Join as many Google Classrooms as possible (or whatever system your district is using) to know what projects and assignments teachers give students so you can co-teach, suggest resources, and infuse information literacy skills during this time of fear and a plethora of misinformation. Teach students to read laterally, practice click-restraint, research authority and multiple perspectives, evaluate evidence, make smart inferences, and draw credible conclusions.

New York City School Library System

At the district level, we are curating resources, planning mini-tutorials and virtual book clubs, and hosting online meetings using Microsoft Teams to connect and problem-solve citywide. We answer e-mails and update our website and content, and we created a form to respond to requests from our field. We plan to connect those who are novices with a tool (for example, Google Classroom) with self-defined experts to build capacity and knowledge citywide.

Translation of Practice

I think the wisest thing we have done is to update librarian job responsibilities from the traditional to remote practice:

As you read through it, you will realize the responsibilities and goals of our jobs have not changed; just the way we do them has. And when this pandemic is over, and we return to our physical spaces and in-person interactions, we will use the virtual practices, resources, and communication tools to take our profession to a level no one thought possible a few weeks ago.


Author: Leanne Ellis

I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Professional Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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18 replies

  1. Very well said Leane

  2. Great teaching tips!

  3. Most of these suggestions have been swimming around in my head for the last week.
    It’s handy to have them spelled out and organized like this so I can reference and remember them.

  4. A great article for a good direction.

  5. Good information from a librarian perspective.

  6. Very clear and concise. I am encouraged by the last thought that in the end we will all be much more capable with current technologies and our teaching will be that much stronger. We will be stronger as an educational system!

  7. Good tips, and wow! LAUSD could update our TL job description using the posted here from NYC schools! It’s what we do.

  8. Great info to archive in times of need!

  9. Good positive can-do information; very needed. Thank you!

  10. Very Helpful! Thanks!

  11. Thank you so much! So well put.

  12. Looking forward to seeing Jacqueline Woodson reading Brown Girl Dreaming. Thanks NYCPL!

  13. I am going to print this out! So many good ideas for distance learning.

  14. Super helpful! Thanks!

  15. A good, concise summary of how we can shift from a professional practice that was strongly rooted in individual, face-to-face interaction to an effective virtual/distance learning model.

  16. Great ideas for students, as well as collaboration between TL’s and teachers.

  17. I found this to be full of wonderful and useful ideas. It is appreciated.

  18. Lots of great suggestions.

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