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COVID–19 Teacher Diary: On Reopening Schools Without Libraries

Welcome to the 49th Teachers COVID–19 Teacher Diary, a blog series that takes a look at how teachers are coping with the pandemic. What will classrooms look like this fall? How are teachers feeling about all the changes? How can educators, parents, and students all cope with overwhelm, communicate more effectively, and support one another?

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Thank you for reading. If you’re an Ontario educator and would like to contribute to this series, please send us an email.

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Written by York Region District School Board Teacher-Librarian Jennifer Byrne

We’ve waited so long for some sense of a return to normalcy. Now, with schools on the cusp of reopening, they do so under the rightful scrutiny of anxious families, teachers, and school staff. There are many rules and guidelines, and it seems more Do Not’s than Do’s. Not to mention the worries and questions! Is it safe? Will kids get sick? Will my kids get sick? Will I get sick? Will I get someone in my family sick? These questions keep me up at night.

But one question I haven’t considered until it was asked of me for the purpose of this post:

How am I feeling? As I write this, I have the privilege of staring out at a lake as two loons glide by with their babies in tow. School feels very far off right now. But it’s not.

This post is meant to explore our schools reopening in the context of the school library learning commons and not broader school reopening plans or operations. And right now, as a teacher-librarian, I’m feeling emotional and sad. The truth is, I’m feeling all of the feelings. As I sit here and think about what school will look like in 2020, I’m scared. Worried. But right now, the most overwhelming feeling is a sense of loss over what should and could have been.

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Normally the weeks leading up to the start of the school year are filled with excitement and nervous trepidation, but also plans! Goals! Ideas! I’d usually spend the last few weeks of August planning lessons for students when they visit, brainstorming welcome back book displays, pondering provocations meant to inspire kids to create and innovate, designing makerspace challenges, collaborating with and supporting my colleagues. The week leading up to school would be spent putting in long hours in the library, sweating, cleaning, organizing, preparing, setting up, sweating (it’s hot in there!), and loving every second of it. Not this year. At the time I’m writing, at least in my school board, the reopening school plans do not include the reopening of our school libraries. No sharing of materials, no loaned books, no makerspaces. Closed.

Now, I don’t believe this decision was made lightly or easily, and I believe that I work for a school board that values school libraries and the professionals working inside of them. But, still, so many questions. And so so many heartbreaking thoughts. So now I’m preparing to go back to...what exactly? I have no makerspaces to prepare, no provocations to write, no books to display. What is a school without its library?

We’ve worked long and hard to build a library learning commons culture in our school. For years now, students have come to see the library as so much more than a room with books for them. It is so so much more.

●    It’s a welcoming, safe space where kids see themselves reflected and represented.
●    It’s a place to decompress from the demands of the classroom in a comforting, familiar environment.
●    It’s staffed with knowledgeable, caring professionals whose job it is to help!
●    It’s a place where kids can take risks, make mistakes, learn new things, ask questions, collaborate, design, build, tinker, listen, talk, have fun, laugh, play, read and so much more.

What happens when our doors are closed, our lights are dimmed, and our books and materials are kept out of students’ hands? These are not questions I want to answer.

Of course in the context of the challenges and tragedies our world is facing right now, the opening or closing of a school library falls very low on the list of things to be worried about. But if we’re getting back to school for the well-being of students, surely the school library has a role to play in that.

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We proved when schools shut down that school libraries were so much more than the physical spaces they provide. We quickly pivoted to create virtual library learning commons that had many of the things kids see when they come visit at school. But now that physical school buildings prepare to reopen, we must ask: where does the school library fit into this new picture of school in a pandemic?

I know I’m not alone in my wonderings and worries, and I’m fortunate to have an amazing professional learning network of other library professionals and educators to lean on as we navigate this uncertainty together. Every Tuesday in August, spearheaded by the outstanding leadership of the OSLA Council, teacher-librarians and other library professionals have been prompted to share the amazing work done in Ontario school libraries under the #ONSchoolLibraries and #ShareYourLLC hashtags on Twitter (check it out for some amazing inspiration!).

As I scroll through these posts, and see these vibrant spaces in all their glory, and as I take a trip down my own memory lane as I compose my own posts to share, I can’t help but do so with a heavy heart. Because what’s next for our libraries? What’s next for the professionals that work inside them? One feeling that exercises like these promotes is a feeling of hope. They demonstrate the professionalism, collaboration, teamwork, and willingness to share that are the trademarks of library professionals everywhere.

One thing I know I can count on is that we will get through this together because we support each other, and through the strength that support provides, we’re able to bring our leadership back to our individual schools.

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At this point, I don’t know what I will be directed to do with my assigned library time during the school day once we return in September. I have ideas of course, some of which allow me to continue in the role, doing what I can to maintain the integrity of the school library learning commons even if there is no physical space for students and teachers to gather. We certainly did it virtually. But it’s different when the physical building is open to the community but parts get shut down. If the school is the body, then the library is its heart. How does a body function without its heart?

So, to answer my own question: how am I feeling?

I’m worried, anxious, and stressed, but also hopeful. Hopeful that the days we face ahead will be healthy and successful. Hopeful that when our children return to school they’ll be welcomed back with smiles and joy, instead of worry and fear. Hopeful that, in the end, we can find a way to make the school library learning commons an integral and necessary part of reopening our doors. All of them.

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jenniferbyrne

Jennifer Byrne is a teacher-librarian at a K–8 elementary school in the York Region District School Board. She is passionate about using the power of stories to reach young people. You can follow all the happenings of her library on Twitter @WilshireLibrary.

>> See all COVID–19 Crisis Teacher Diary posts

All photos from the Wilshire Library, provided by Jennifer Byrne.

August 14, 2020
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