It Takes a Village: How School Librarians Support Virtual Learning

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It’s no secret that virtual learning has been a challenge in the United States. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, many K–12 students have been engaged in some version of distance education since March 2020. Whether hybrid or entirely remote, the learning curve has been steep for teachers, caregivers, and students.

However, teachers are not alone in their efforts to provide supports to students and families. Across the country, library media specialists are finding innovative ways to support virtual learning. From sharing digital resources to collaborating on instruction, school librarians are stepping up to meet this new challenge.

According to the School Library Journal, “Librarians have never been more critical to the nation’s schools.” With their expertise, librarians can help teachers and students to navigate the abundance of digital content available. Bill Bass, innovation coordinator for the Parkway School District in Missouri, agrees. He says, “Librarians are essential in helping teachers and students understand how to find and utilize high-quality digital tools and content.”

Providing Assistance With Technology

Like most school districts, Pitt County Schools in Eastern North Carolina have tried combinations of virtual, hybrid, and face-to-face instruction since the pandemic began. Both teachers and parents have been frustrated with the constant changes, but they’ve persevered. School staff have worked together to make the best of a tough situation.

At D.H. Conley High School, media coordinators Jana Bullard and Vanessa Sasser have expanded the digital resources available to teachers and families. According to Mrs. Bullard, they’ve created a Virtual Library that students can browse from home. Students can place books on hold. The books are delivered to their classroom or placed in the school foyer for pick-up.

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Ms. Sasser adds, “We’ve also expanded our ebook collection for ease of access to materials for students that are virtual and unable to get to campus.” Ms. Sasser and Mrs. Bullard provide technology assistance for parents and students via Zoom throughout the day.

“This has been invaluable,” says Ms. Sasser. “Allowing the students to share their screen so we can walk them through fixing their problem has been extremely effective.”

In Louisville, Kentucky, librarians are supported by the district office of Library Media Services (LMS). According to Dr. Lynn Reynolds, the executive director of LMS for the 29th largest school district in the country, her office’s role has been essential in providing support to all stakeholders. “The charge was to deliver high quality service during Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) and LMS worked in numerous ways to support Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) librarians and all of their students.” 

LMS librarians provided targeted support to both new and experienced school librarians through specialized NTI LibGuide Resources, ebook purchases, and digital resource training and tutorials.” LMS organizes its work around three types of support. These include student centered resources, school library program support, and professional learning and growth. Instructional support is organized by zones, each of which is led by a member of the LMS Instructional Support staff.  

Finally, LMS also provides assistance to librarians in maintaining their professional responsibilities:

  • keeping their web presence fresh and engaging by updating their LibGuide and managing database usage
  • keeping print collections up to date through database maintenance, ordering guidance, and weeding outdated materials
  • lesson planning and collaboration with colleagues 
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Supporting Virtual And In-Person Instruction

Gabrielle Lamb at H.B. Sugg and Sam Bundy Elementary Schools in Farmville, North Carolina, has been working hard to create useful content for Sugg-Bundy students. Rightfully proud of her efforts, Mrs. Lamb shared:

“One thing I have done is to provide in person and virtual programming each month. The goal was to target grade spans (K–2, 3–5), but I’ve ended up creating a program for each grade level. For example, in December the overall topic was Fairy Tale STEM. Each grade had a story and age-appropriate STEM activity to go along with it.

“1st grade read The Three Little Pigs & the Somewhat Bad Wolf and experimented with building houses made of sticks, straws, & bricks (index cards). 2nd grade read Gingerbread Baby and made bridges for the gingerbread baby with marshmallows and toothpicks. 3rd graders read Honestly, Red Riding Hood was Rotten and made mazes for Little Red with paper plates, magnets, and scrap paper. 4th grade students read The Emperor’s New Clothes and made their own thaumatropes, which show optical illusions. 5th graders read The Stinky Cheese Man and made catapults for the cheese man.”

Mrs. Lamb didn’t stop there. She personally made Ziploc bags for classrooms or individuals so students would have easy access to the items and teachers would not feel it was “one more thing” to do. For each grade level, she prepared a video or slideshow of the program. These could easily be used by those teaching virtually. Face-to-face teachers were given the option for Lamb to come into the classroom and do the program with students. They could also choose to just show the slideshow/video.

Lamb adds that her classroom visits “have been very joyful and entertaining. I love finding new ways to keep the students reading and engaged in literacy activities.”

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Ensuring Access to Materials

JCPS librarian Emily Grady has also re-thought her role. “In August, I was wondering what my role as librarian would be during NTI. I quickly realized that there were essential tasks, which were not necessarily ‘library roles’, that would promote the betterment of the school.”

Grady’s middle school conducted a literacy drive-through, which she said was a nice way to foster the learning community and give teachers and students a chance to see one another safely.  

“In the time of COVID-19, I have made a push to get resources into students’ hands. I want our students to know we have multiple reliable resources that they can become proficient in using,” says Grady. “I want the students to have access to a variety of databases and books within circulation for their own free choice.” 

Grady has a strong collaborative relationship with reading teachers. She visits their synchronous class meetings on a rotation. “From a personal standpoint, it is rewarding to see students actively using our databases or reading apps when I return to subsequent class meetings.”  

Other JCPS librarians, like Westport Middle School’s Amy Lyons, are thinking long term. “My energy focus during NTI has been two-fold: I concentrate on providing services right now, such as digital resources for research, access to ebooks, on-demand video instructions for students and teachers, book delivery and pick-up, and curriculum and lesson development. I also devote much time and effort to the physical environment and programming the students will encounter upon return to face to face instruction.” This has included everything from getting new furniture to ordering “hundreds of new books and replaced hundreds more lost due to COVID.” 

Lyons also helps to keep students engaged. “I repeatedly contact students who do not come to live classes and offer help with technology.” 

Though Lyons, like so many educators, is doing all she can, it still takes an emotional toll. “I pray for my students, their families, their safety, their health, and their homes. I lie in bed at night and wonder if they are cold or hungry, yet I support every decision our district makes in this difficult, tragic time, with no perfect answers.”  

Conversely, Engelhard Elementary School’s Charity Garnett acknowledges the positives of NTI. “Virtual learning has highlighted the value and necessity of librarians as collaborators. It has been fun working with teachers to help enhance their science, social studies, and math lessons, as well as reading instruction. Additionally, we have more eBook access than ever before.”

Garnett notes that the ebooks have made reading more accessible to some students. “This has been extremely valuable to our demographic of students who don’t always have access to books. Our voracious readers love having so many books at their fingertips. Even the most reluctant readers are checking out and enjoying books through online platforms. Their faces light up when they share what they are reading! While it hasn’t been easy by any means, it has been wonderful to connect with so many students and teachers in new ways.” 

Maintaining a Focus on Equity

One of the biggest concerns of virtual learning has been equity and access. Many teachers have wrestled with teaching in culturally responsive ways or teaching for social justice in an online environment. Luckily, librarians are here to help.

“Every Tuesday I showcase a Woke Book of the Week on the morning announcements to promote our school wide #ReadWoke Reading Challenge,” says Adrian Layne from Louisville’s Central High School. “I include a book trailer or author interview, a link to the library catalog for checkout, and a link to the #ReadWoke Challenge overview.”

Additionally, to combat access issues, Layne makes house calls. “I deliver books to all students in all parts of the county, following CDC guidelines.” 

K.C. Boyd knows the importance of addressing issues of social justice in the classroom. As a school librarian in Washington, D.C., Boyd made a point to address the Capitol Hill Attack.

“My students are witnessing history in their back yards first with the rioting and then experiencing the inauguration,” says Boyd. “The curfews and inconveniences on their personal lives impacted their lives unlike their peers across the country.  My students are very quick to observe the inequities in treatment…[between] Black Lives Matter vs. Capitol Riot[ers] treatment by the police.”

JCPS LMS spearheads a Diversity Awareness Work Group to support efforts to promote equity. Librarians in JCPS are facilitating virtual book discussion groups with teachers. They’ve chosen titles like So You Want to Talk About Race to engage teachers in tough conversations.

Others in the district partnered with social studies classes in the fall to tackle the topic of voter suppression. Librarians and students collaborated with the Frazier History Museum, the Louisville chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters. Together, they used local radio stations to get voting information out to disenfranchised populations.

Librarians Support Virtual Learning

These examples are not anomalies. Educators, including school librarians, are working hard to support students in these unprecedented times. School librarians are often unsung heroes. Whether they’re helping children find reliable sources on the internet or planning instruction, librarians are essential.

“These are challenging and exciting times in education,” says Emily Grady. “Teachers and students have had to adapt to unfamiliar technology platforms and master them, in addition to being flexible in the changes we have had to make to our teaching and/or learning styles. The databases that we have had available to students for years have now become the backbone of teaching and learning in our non-traditional media centers, as opposed to being just one of many resources available to them. 

“The learning curves have been significant for all of us, but at least one thing remains true: our job as library media specialists is to help teachers teach and students learn. This new arena of education has allowed for creativity in the way we provide that help.” 

Dr. Reynolds sums up librarians’ position nicely. “We are poised to continue teaching with purpose and intent, using what works best to accelerate and impact student learning.”  

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