School Libraries Stand in the Gap - What Every School Administrator Needs to Know
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the education system in the United States since this past spring when classes were abruptly halted and students were sent home to complete the rest of their semesters through virtual classrooms. This is a time when smart school administrators should look to their school librarians to help fill the gap.
While the uncertainty of the virus in the early months created a destabilized and anxiety-filled environment in everyone’s lives, the subsequent months have only shown that the last-ditch safety efforts and online schooling are not temporary. Combined with the new worry of COVID slide compounded with yearly concerns of summer slide, going into the new school year will be a different experience for students and educators alike. With their expertise in resource access, mentality towards personalized learning, interdisciplinary instructional training, and consistent presence in the schools’, school librarians are well-positioned to aid in filling the learning gap most students have already or will experience due to the unexpected outcomes of the Coronavirus.
COVID Slide and the Learning Gap
Many educators are familiar with the summer slide, which is the “loss of academic achievement that was gained during the previous school year” (Mackley and Chrastka, 5). While there are inconsistencies in regards to the impact of learning loss that summers have, it is clear that the loss is more significant in older students and in analytical-based classes. These declines have been a common issue that school districts have faced throughout the years and have been working to combat. But, the COVID crisis has brought on another onset of the slide that many educators were not expecting or prepared for.
The COVID slide has been shown to have much more detrimental effects on students and will increase the learning gap more severely than before. As referenced by the authors of the white paper, “School Librarians and the COVID Slide”, it is expected that in the fall of 2020 students are only expected to return with 50% of learning gains in mathematics and due to the limited information from canceled and postponed assessments, educators will not be able to accurately determine the progress of students (Kuhfeld and Tarasawa, 2020). These gaps only continue to increase when you look into students of different socioeconomic backgrounds with those that lack their basic hierarchy of needs within Maslow’s pyramid being most vulnerable.
The Reach of School Librarians
School librarians have also stood at the core of delivering exceptional education to students. They not only provide countless amounts of learning tools and resources to the student community, they also expand beyond physical forms of education through supporting and engaging a student’s growth and development into critical thinkers and researchers as well as ensuring equitable access to education.
Virtual content has become the forefront of education in times of COVID. Not only was access to technology and digital platforms becoming an increasingly important factor in delivering educational content, it has now become one of the most defining components of whether or not a student will be able to overcome the COVID slide. The American Association of School Librarians noted these areas of virtual content as overlapping with the roles of school librarians during COVID (2020c):
- Reading development
- Co-teaching responsibilities
- Digital resource training
- Social and emotional learning/support
- Digital citizenship
- English, writing, typing
- Computer science, coding
The data from these surveys evidence that librarians can help lead the digital transformation of learning. Not only do school librarians have extensive training in advantageously utilizing digital content, they are also adept at adapting to changing environments while continuing to provide meaningful experiences and opportunities to the students they come across. They can help supplement classroom instruction where needed and also meet the individual needs of students to be successful professionally, academically, and socially.
In fact, many school librarians have already stepped into spaces and worked to share their knowledge with others during COVID. NeverEnding Search, a blog run by school librarian Joyce Valenza, has published multiple articles each month addressing many concerns that teachers switching to remote and virtual classrooms may need. These include everything from resources for learning at home, remote teaching tips, and how-to guides for making videos accessible to investigating Coronavirus in media messages and how to talk to students about the pandemic.
Bridging Learning Inequities
If ever invisible to some before, the disparities in learning opportunities are now an obvious and gaping truth that everyone must face. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the weaknesses in our education system and exposed the inequities that many students regularly experience. Communities of color, lower-income, or rural communities have also been at the cusp of these challenges. But the transition to virtual learning environments mean that students of these backgrounds and many others are going to experience more difficulties in accessing education. Technology requirements and designated learning spaces are not achievable in every household. It is also no surprise that distance learning is “less effective at meeting the needs of students learning English, students with disabilities, or students who were already behind and needing targeted support” (Robolen 2020).
School librarians have always guided students through digital struggles with most students first learning how to perform basic internet research at their schools library with the instruction and advice from their dedicated librarian. Beyond this, school librarians are capable of continuing this aid through the Coronavirus pandemic by curating accessible materials and technologies that ensure students of different backgrounds can continue their studies at the same pace as their classmates.
School librarians essentially become leaders within their communities by shaping the conversation surrounding education and access and advocating for those they serve. They achieve these responsibilities by “enabling and facilitating educator and administrator needs in the shifting landscape” (AASL 2020c). This encompasses resource and technology curation, virtual assistance, expansion of resources, facilitation of professional development and collaborative events, technological support, co-teaching, and being an on-hand resource for freedom/fair-use questions.
As noted by the National Education Association, school librarians know how to keep “the human element of educational practice at the forefront of the learner’s experience” (2020). They incorporate a variety of diverse considerations into the work that they do, advocating for those they serve and promoting an awareness of humanity through social justice education. They bring thoughtful integration of culturally diverse materials to the learning experience, teaching students about the different experiences of different people throughout history, how it impacts the present, and why it matters.
One of the main interests that school librarians serve is that of the student. They are skilled at working with students throughout their learning journey, encouraging them to pursue personal interests while still feeling socially and emotionally supported. This type of guidance cultivates an environment of self-awareness that allows students to then engage with others in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner. Students are able to take these teachings and apply them to situations of communication and collaboration with others.
Foundation for Growth and Exploration
As specialists, school librarians build relationships between students and the world that strengthen their curiosities and, therefore, keep them empowered throughout their education whether it is taking place in person or online. Especially during the pandemic, it is important to remember that students are working in more independent settings than they had previously been functioning in before. While classroom teachers are also excellent communicators and facilitators of the learning process, school librarians are pivotal to transitioning to a digital environment. With experts guiding students through their virtual schedules, learners of all ages can be reassured in knowing that there are multiple avenues of support watching out for them.
School librarians also provide crucial aid to teachers through technology support, lesson planning, and finding resources. Not only are they equipped to handle the ambiguity and changing priorities of classroom teachers during COVID, but the training school librarians have also received make them effective thought leaders at all levels of the school system. Their link to literacy drives their abilities to create equitable access, curate diverse collections, empower learners towards personal growth, and promote a culture of belonging.
Warriors for Education
As Chrastka and Mackley have stated, a “school librarian’s expertise is far-reaching and they are positioned at the center of the school’s culture to be the solution to educational repercussions of COVID” (6). Their innate sense of curiosity and adaptability make school librarians ideal to help maneuver the education system through the COVID slide. These specialists are skilled at meeting the needs of students and families and, what’s more, will meet these needs wherever they appear. The effects of COVID on student learning are not completely known yet. However, what is clear is the key role that school librarians play in closing the gap and working towards solutions.
American Association of School Librarians. (2020c, May 5). Second snapshot of school librarian roles during school closures. Knowledge Quest; AASL. https://knowledgequest.aasl.org/second-snapshotof-school-librarian-roles-during-school-closures/
Kuhfeld, M., & Tarasawa, B. (2020). The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement. In NWEA. NWEA. https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/05/Collaborative-Brief_Covid19-Slide-APR20.pdf
Mackley, A., & Chrastka, J. (2020, July). School Librarians and the COVID Slide: Librarians at the Heart of School Renewal and Transformation. EveryLibrary Institute; EveryLibrary. https://www.everylibraryinstitute.org/school_libraries_covid_slide
National Education Association. (2020). All hands on deck: Initial guidance regarding reopening school buildings. In Educating Through Crisis. NEA. https://educatingthroughcrisis.org/wpcontent/uploads/2020/06/27178-Initial-Guidance-for-Reopening-Schools_Final-1.pdf
Robolen, E. (2020, May 14). Testing COVID-19’s academic impact on students. Education Writers Association. https://www.ewa.org/blog-educated-reporter/testing-covid-19s-academic-impactstudents