Photo by Christine Cousins
It was March 12, 2020, and across the province, teachers were scrambling. The Ministry of Education had suddenly announced that the March break would be extended in light of the increasing case counts in the COVID-19 pandemic. Many teacher-librarians invited their students to check out extra books, wanting to be sure they had books in hand to read over an extended break.
And then school communities left for the break, glued to the news as the changes continued to unfold. Within days, planes were grounded, travel-bans enacted, thousands of March break travellers stranded and suddenly citizens were wiping down groceries and fighting over toilet paper in a full-out lockdown. The March break extension became “Emergency Remote Learning” and a pre-COVID world seemed a distant memory.
2019-20: School Library Staff Step Up to the Challenge
As educators navigated the transition to teaching in an online format, some embraced the challenge, while others struggled in a digital world. Across the province, teacher-librarians stepped up. Supporting colleagues with webinars, one-to-one training, peer mentoring and co-teaching, teacher-librarians became a vital resource for educators looking to engage with their students in this new-to-many remote learning environment. Equitable access proved to be a huge issue and one that prevented many students from participating. The varied skill levels and access to digital equipment also highlighted the need for immediate technical support to staff.
Enter teacher-librarians. With strong skills for sleuthing resources, teaching digital citizenship and media literacy, introducing new and innovative digital learning tools and providing technical support for both students and colleagues, teacher-librarians proved to be an essential resource in boards across the province. The teacher-librarian community found new strength in coming together to collaborate. Teams of teacher-librarians worked together to create informative webinars and other useful resources such as choice boards. They offered school- or board-based office hours to provide personalized help to their colleagues. Without access to their classroom resources, some teachers turned to online versions of texts for lessons, unclear that most presented copyright violations. So, teacher-librarians highlighted online resources that were ethically sourced with publisher permissions and appropriate allowances for school use and embarked on a campaign to help raise awareness around copyright in a digital learning environment.
2020-21: Short-Sighted Savings
Casual observers might believe that the pandemic demonstrated the need for teacher-librarians in every school more than ever, but this opinion did not filter up to significant decision-makers. In the 2020-21 school year, some school boards were forced to reallocate teaching positions to help staff virtual schools due to a continued serious lack of funding. This reallocation included central teaching staff such as literacy and numeracy coaches, guidance counsellors and teacher-librarians. For impacted schools, this meant that libraries, since they were no longer staffed, were now shuttered. Elementary school library staffing allocations disappeared in 2020-21 from the Toronto District School Board, the largest board in Canada, as well as from the York Region District School Board. In other school boards, libraries were closed to both staff and students and only the teacher-librarians were allowed entry so they could facilitate the delivery of materials but little else. Many people were upset and educators, parents and concerned community members spoke up to object to this short-sighted decision. Canadian School Libraries issued a statement that read in part, “Quality school library programs have never been more essential. We cannot afford to sacrifice the library’s unique contribution to student success and wellbeing during this period of emergency measures, nor can we risk the future by weakening this essential resource in the shorter term.”
The negative ramifications of “shelved” teacher-librarians were not limited to schools alone. The publishing industry was also hit hard. Maria Martella, owner of the book wholesaler Tinlids, revealed that their sales plummeted nearly 50 percent during COVID-19, due in part to teacher-librarians no longer making purchases. “It’s much more than just sales decreasing,” she notes. “Without librarians to represent the interests of all students and monitor the needs of all curriculum support materials, there is much more pressure on booksellers to meet these needs. While booksellers have a certain amount of expertise, they also need a professional partner who is dedicated to collection development on a broader scale, and not just class-by-class. This helps us provide the best resources for each school community.”
Inadequate Funding Means Inequities Flourish
Funding shortfalls are always an issue for school libraries. Some schools rely heavily on parent council donations or fundraising efforts (such as book fairs) to obtain even a meager amount of money to buy books and provide enriching learning opportunities.
Recently, the Ontario Library Association published a one-page guideline document called School Library Funding in Ontario (accessola.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/2021-09-GSN-Explainer-FINAL.pdf).
The document notes that the current level of funding only allows for one school library staff member for every 763 elementary students. The document also states that library funding is not enveloped, and therefore, “school boards are not required to spend the funds as intended by the ministry formula.”
This greatly disturbs Beth Lyons. Lyons, the incoming 2022 President of the Ontario School Library Association, is also an elementary school teacher-librarian in the Peel District School Board. As she reports, “the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on school libraries and programming that has only served to highlight inequities that have been present across the province for years.”
“As a teacher-librarian I am deeply concerned with the short- and long-term consequences that the decisions to close school libraries and re-assign teacher-librarians has had for students and for the broader education system. School library professionals serve the entire school community through the curation of resources, purchasing of diverse materials that reflect the lived experience of students and the community and providing opportunities for participatory learning through maker space activities and inquiry-based learning. The physical space, often the second largest shared space in a school, is a hub of innovation, student support and information literacy. There are currently boards within the province where generations of parents and children have never known the joy of a fully staffed school library learning commons. As the education system begins to look forward and plan to support the learning needs of all students, school boards and the provincial government need to understand and recognize the role fully staffed school libraries can play in supporting the current and future needs of our students.”
2021-22: Similar Stressful Situations
This year’s return to school has forced school boards to make difficult choices. The Ontario Ministry of Education directive to continue providing a virtual learning option for students was made without even the limited funding that was provided for the 2020-2021 school year. On top of continued expenses for COVID-19 protocols, school boards were forced to find avenues for cutting costs in other budget lines and school libraries found themselves on the proverbial chopping block once again.
Jennifer Byrne, a York Region District School Board educator, states, “staffing has been consistently eroded year after year. It is impossible to deliver the kind of programming that is needed and to adequately service every child in the building.” She adds, “the library budget has also been severely depleted.
I’m seeing the ramifications of this now because I have a collection that is aging and no way to replace it with the number of items that are weeded out.”
A teacher-librarian in Halton District School Board, who wishes to stay anonymous, told the authors of this article that “our budget has been cut and we have been told to run pizza days if we want more money. We also desperately need French resources and diversity/ inclusion books to help everyone feel represented in our available materials…Things look rather bare on the shelf.”
Christina Wilson is a teacher-librarian in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board. She reports similar working conditions. “In our board,” she says, “a TL is very minimalistic. I am currently 40 percent library and 20 percent prep coverage. However, I pretty much do all prep coverage. I get 20 extra minutes of prep time each week to shelve books and tidy up my library. There is no time given for collaboration with other staff.”
Karen Brown is in the Grand Erie District School Board and is saddened by the changes to school librarianship in her board. “These fancy new Learning Commons are not being utilized like they should be because there is no one to plan activities, shelve books or support teachers or the curriculum.”
What can concerned educators do to prevent this loss? Johanna Lawler, a teacher-librarian with the Greater Essex District School Board, has some suggestions. She highly recommends starting a local Ad Hoc Library Committee with your union. As she explains, “TL members need to have this committee to keep their locals in the loop, so that local released officers and the board can work closely together to make sure that students in all boards receive access to libraries, teacher-librarians and high-quality resources for both teachers and students.” She adds, “Having a local ad hoc committee also informs the Provincial Library Standing Committee by helping to amplify TL voices from around the province, thus supporting ETFO’s vision in Building Better Schools. The needs, professional learning and support mechanisms are somewhat unique for these specialized teachers; all ETFO members need to feel supported both locally and provincially in the end.”
Educators who aren’t teacher-librarians can also stand up for quality school library staffing and funding in their schools. School libraries aren’t always the quiet places that stereotypes might have you believe. In fact, the modern School Library Learning Commons (SLLC) may look a lot different from the hushed libraries in the schools of past generations. Now they can be the beating heart of the school community – a learning space where creativity, innovation, inquiry, equity, identity and student voice are celebrated, honoured and encouraged, sometimes loudly. Makerspaces, STEAM activities, coding robots and Lego walls are all popular additions to familiar reading nooks, book clubs and book fairs. Together, it is incumbent upon all of us to help ensure that the SLLCs of today and tomorrow continue to support our school communities in the varied ways they are able. As with so many other aspects of public education in this era, the school library is one more facet of our profession for which we must continue to fight. Fight for adequate funding, for adequate professional staffing and for the continued assurance that school libraries will be open to help our students foster a life-long love of reading. Our students are counting on us.
Diana Maliszewski and Wendy Burch Jones are members of Elementary Teachers of Toronto.
Asking the Important Questions
As the impact of school libraries being closed was felt around the province, a number of influential stakeholders stepped up to make a difference with the Save School Libraries Coalition. This group, comprised of key members of the Canadian literary community including authors, publishers, wholesalers, educators and the Ontario Library Association, came together to help ensure that these closures would be a short-term pandemic response and as soon as the pandemic was over, restrictions would be lifted and regular staffing restored. They embarked on a province-wide social media campaign to help school communities fight for their own school libraries leading up to the 2021-22 school year by asking three key questions of their local administrators and trustees:
- Does my child still have access to school library resources and to a qualified school library professional?
- Is a qualified school library professional responsible for selecting the books in my child’s school library?
- What is your plan for the school library next year?
The #SaveSchoolLibraries hashtag garnered some media attention last fall when CBC called on Wendy Burch Jones to be a guest on Metro Morning with Ismaila Alfa (September 9, 2020: A TDSB librarian talks about what students lose when school libraries become isolation rooms) and then again on CBC Morning Live (CBC News Network) when she was interviewed by Heather Hiscox on September 15. In both interviews she spoke about being reassigned from her role as a teacherlibrarian to a Grade 1/2 classroom teacher and how the students at her school would be impacted by the closure of the school library.