The best part of being a school librarian is that no day is ever the same and outside of administration, I'm the only teacher in the school who gets to work with everyone. As school has shutdown in the wake of COVID-19, my role certainly changed. Immediately, I went into triage trying how to best meet the information access needs of all of my students. The situation has been fluid and hour to hour since the virus has taken hold throughout the states. What's a school librarian to do?
Firstly, we don't panic. There is so much information out there and that is, of course, our specialty. This is a good time to point our users toward information that is vetted and to discuss bias among sources. Like everything else in the United States right now, the information coming out about COVID-19 is slanted politically. There is no time like the present to talk about "fake news" and media bias.
Secondly, as librarians, we are all about access. My school has only just begun the planning for digital learning days, so there are many obstacles regarding computer and Internet access. Of course it is best to prepare for these things before a closure, but we cannot be prepared for everything so the librarian may have to help bridge access gaps at the very last minute. At my school, we had many students who did not have access to devices during closure. Our solution was to create packets of learning materials that would be picked up by students without technology. The role of the librarian here is to try to provide as many vetted instructional resources as possible for teachers to include in the packets. Use instructional expertise to design engaging activities rather than fill-in-the-blank style worksheets. This may be easier said than done when given only a very short notice for creating these materials.
It is tempting and easy while in panic mode to ignore intellectual property rights on materials. Usually, as an alternative to a fair use analysis, I advise teachers to contact publishers to ask for permission to use their resources. This advice is fairly standard in the industry, and of those who do reach out to publishers, a very small percentage actually hear back. That is not the case during the COVID-19 crisis. On the first Saturday after closure, I had a teacher write the publisher of Gabi: A Girl in Pieces, Cinco Puntos Press, and received a response back that same day granting permission for online readings and copies of the text. Publishers, like many other providers of educational tools, are recognizing the extraordinary situation that schools are facing and are granting permissions in a way that I have not seen before.
Distance learning has always been an expectation of librarians in my district. What started as virtual field trips to the zoo using expensive video conferencing equipment evolved into using more accessible tools for our students such as Google Hangouts and Skype. My teachers, on the other hand, have often not been in a place to use these tools instructionally. The learning curve on these tools is not steep. With a few on-the-fly practice sessions, teachers quickly became comfortable using these tools to hold virtual office hours or do some synchronous online learning time.
Of course, librarians really excel when it comes to curating resources, and school librarians are particularly good when it comes to the curation of online instructional materials. This, however, is where I made my biggest blunder while in crisis mode. There were many, many resource lists being shared as schools continued to close. Companies were providing access to their services for free. I passed these lists on to my teachers and thought that I was being helpful. In hindsight, I should have evaluated these resources using the usual criteria. What are the privacy policies of these services and what are they doing with our student data? Are the services COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act) and CIPA (Children's Internet Protection Act) compliant? What happens after the free trial is over? I wish that I had better curated the list of resources rather than sharing the very extensive ones that were out there. It was also impossible to provide support for every service that was on those lists, so sometimes teachers were on their own or had to wait for me to figure out the services myself before I could help them. In sum, this was not the best approach.
Crisis is by very definition, difficult, but it gives librarians their chance to shine. Even on ordinary days we have to engage in triage to prioritize the needs of all of the students and teachers in our building. We are used to not being able to do everything and that is exactly what happens in a crisis. We exercise these skills to maximize the benefit to our students. We make sure that teachers and students have what they need to be successful. It is another opportunity to embed ourselves as an essential piece of the teaching and learning environment of our schools.