Program Is Designed To Fill A Void While Public And School Libraries Are Closed
Over 200 Wildwood Elementary school children have a bundle of new books to read this week thanks to the efforts of the school librarian, Susan Wells, with help from the Parent Guardian Organization (PGO) and parent volunteers.
For the past month, Wells has been working on a way to get books into the hands of kids, most of whom have not stepped foot into the school building since March 13th, when it closed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With students learning from home, Wells saw it as a top priority to get physical reading materials into the hands of her students.
Children in Amherst and surrounding towns have little access to free reading materials, given that most are learning remotely, with no access to their school libraries. Public libraries in the area remain physically closed, except for limited services such as curbside pick-up. The Pelham Library has recently begun offering timed, scheduled in-person browsing opportunities.
Designing a complex book distribution system from scratch, Wells invited families to reply to an electronic form that asked if they would like books for their child once per month. Families were offered the option of picking the books up at the school, or having them delivered to their homes. Wells enlisted the support of the PGO and paraprofessional support in the library, and recruited a number of parent volunteers to help with the project. Of the 359 students currently enrolled in Wildwood school, Wells heard from the families of 222 students (62%), with about half choosing home delivery.
Wells purchased hundreds of clear backpacks with funding provided by the School District under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and filled each one with a selection of 7-10 books, individually curated for each child. Children in the younger grades worked with Wells during their weekly library class to create wish lists of books they would like, while students in the older grades were invited to create “holds” through an online reservation system. Wells included a mix of fiction and non-fiction books suited to each child’s reading level and interests. In each backpack, she included a note that encouraged students to share with her what they liked or didn’t like so she could improve the selections next time around. Over 2,000 books were distributed to students this week, according to Wells.
Reached by phone, Wells said, “Reading builds community, and that is what we need right now…The kids were so excited to receive their books, and to see many of them in person made the many hours of pulling books and packing backpacks totally worth it!”
Wells intends to keep the distribution going as long as there are students who are learning remotely. The next round of delivery/pick-up is scheduled for the week of November 16th. Students will be expected to return the books and the backpack at that time, and will receive a new backpack filled with a new selection tailored to their interests. Wells said that returned books will be quarantined for seven days before being returned to the Wildwood library.
The project has already drawn interest from other schools. According to Wells, Fort River Elementary School’s Librarian, Lani Blechman, is planning to undertake a similar project this fall.