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Back to School Considerations for Wisconsin Public Libraries

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Back to School Basics

Wisconsin is a local control state; every public school district determines their own policies, including whether the 2020-2021 school year will begin with virtual, in-person, physically distanced, or other instructional options. Other schooling options, such as private schools or home-based private education (homeschooling), will likely reflect programming changes this school year, such as new schedules or new students. In addition, colleges and universities will offer an array of choices for fall learning. As a result higher education students might find themselves taking online classes while living in their home communities rather than on campus. All of these factors contribute to the ways in which students, families, and educators might engage with their local public library this fall and beyond.

What to Anticipate

There is no way how to anticipate exactly what everyone will need. Those most affected are absorbed with the decisions and impacts right now and likely do not know yet what services or resources from the library might be appreciated. While there are many unknowns, you might safely assume that Internet access (WiFi and hot spots), access to books and materials (print, digital, and interlibrary loan), and accessible customer service from library staff (phone, email, live chat, appointments, etc.) are always in demand. Consider how you might harness national library card sign up month in September to remind your community about your current array of library services.

Where to Start

Get in touch with your local school district, which might be limited to monitoring website updates or social media posts at the moment. In addition, connect with childcare providers and out of school programming organizations in your area. Focus on the timeline, learning options, and communication channels. For example, your district may or may not be starting the school year on the same date for every grade, or perhaps different grades will have different daily/weekly schedules. If possible, find out when and how you might piggyback on back to school communications to message details about pertinent library services.

Many public libraries have established connections with local homeschooling networks. Establishing or enhancing connections to these groups can help disseminate information about library services. Consider how some families might rely on the library for finding information about how to homeschool, while others might be more interested in library resources related to supporting student learning.

Most importantly, continue to actively engage with your community by listening to their individual and collective needs. While valuable to respond and adapt to the needs of regular library users, consider who you are not hearing from right now. If you are unsure of where to start, look to organizations, groups, locales, and activities generating engagement. Find a leader or organizer with whom you can meet and listen to their experience. Following this conversation, you might consider how to adapt library services to better meet the needs of community members who are not using the library. See Turning Outward Resources for Libraries from the American Library Association’s Libraries Transforming Communities.

Resources to Review

The Wisconsin Public Libraries Reopening Guide lists the follow details regarding in-person programming.

Providing in-person programming inside the library requires thoughtful consideration by the library about its ability to do so safely. If a library does decide to provide in-person programming, the following criteria should be considered:

  • The ability to do in-person programming within a library space according to a library’s capacity to do so with social distancing and within the library’s occupancy calculations.
  • Offer outdoor activities whenever possible, where internal air is not circulating.
  • Staff training in all aspects of social distancing protocol for themselves and others. Consider how expectations will be communicated to patrons, and how they will be enforced. In particular, be cognizant of how some age groups may have a harder time adhering to rules (e.g. toddlers, teens).
  • Require registration in numerous formats (phone, email, online form, paper) for the following reasons:
  • Registration helps communicate safety protocols, including behavior expectations (e.g. smiles and high-fives from afar--no hugging).
  • Registration helps ensure that capacity is not breached.
  • Registration helps manage potentially higher than normal program attendance (people might be coming out of the woodwork).
  • Registration may help with contact tracing, if necessary.

While few libraries are offering in-person programming to groups at the moment, many of these recommendations can be applied to back to school considerations. For example, if the library has outdoor seating or spaces, consider how use might change with fall school behavior. Revisiting expectations, communication, and enforcement with staff and library users is critical. For any services provided inside the library building, consider registration for appointments. Lastly, your library’s unattended child policy should be revisited and re-communicated, if necessary.

In addition to any documents provided by your local school district, childcare providers, and out of school programming organizations, you might also want to review Education Forward: Operating Schools During a Pandemic. Lastly, consult DPI’s Home-based Private Education (Homeschooling) webpage.

Written by:
Tessa Michaelson Schmidt
Division for Libraries & Technology



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