School libraries adapt during COVID to keep kids reading

A Dearborn High School student picks up books in the school library in March.

It may be obvious, but schools love it when kids read!

The challenge then, is how to get books into students’ hands during a pandemic?

Dearborn Public School libraries have stepped up in two ways.

First, media specialists (school librarians) created some form of curbside or window pickup at almost every school starting in the fall and then taught students how to find their school’s catalog online and request books for pickup.

Then in January, the district launched a partnership with other schools in the Wayne County Consortium and with the Dearborn Public Library to make digital books available to students through Sora.

“Adding Sora just adds a whole new layer with ebooks,” said Hilda Irani, teacher leader for media specialists. 

Regular Dearborn Library users may be familiar with the library’s Overdrive app that allows library card holders to check out digital books and resources. Sora is the school version of the program.

Dearborn Schools was able to add the Sora system using CARES money for COVID-related expenses.

“The nice thing about it is not only can kids access books through the schools’ libraries, but through the Dearborn Public Libraries and through the Wayne County Consortium,” Irani said.

Based on a child’s school, Sora automatically filters what books students are able to check out to ensure material is age appropriate.

Another advantage is that no public library card is needed.  Students can check out a book using just their student information, much like they access the Schoology or Zoom systems they use to attend class.  

Through Sora, children can also access audio books and books in other languages and can continue to check out material from home year round, even during the summer.  Staff can also borrow through Sora.

By early March, students had already checked out more than 4,000 titles through Sora, Irani said.

Cynthia Alvarado, media specialist at Salina Elementary and Intermediate and Howard Elementary, noted that the Wayne County consortium provided students access to more than 3,000 juvenile fiction books.  Teaming up with the Dearborn Public Library more than doubled the number of titles available to students.

“It’s a great partnership with the public library that we are able to do that,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado has long been dedicated to getting more books in students’ hands.

She was among the first in the district to create a way to help students check out books while schools were closed.

Outside the classroom door, a Salina student grabs a crate of books students requested from the library.

Normally, she runs a robust summer program at Salina to help draw kids into the school library to check out books.  Because she couldn’t have students in the building last summer, she moved the program outside.  Along with an activity, she would haul books out on a cart and use her tablet to help students check them out, and she launched the curbside program.

Other media specialists across the district followed suit, and by the end of the fall, most of the district’s 34 schools had a system where students could view the school catalog online and then request and pick up library books.

Since students returned to school in March, Alvarado is also making deliveries to classrooms for teachers to hand out the books students requested.

“If you order I will make sure you get it,” Alvarado said.

On the other side of Dearborn, drivers passing by Dearborn High can see the handiwork of school media specialist Brad Neff in the several signs touting curbside pickup and reading in general.

Like Alvarado, he worked over the summer last year to connect students to books.

“It’s not just curbside, at least here at this library,” Neff said.  Besides the online requests and now Sora ebooks, he also keeps a case of free paperbacks in the hallway for students to grab.

“Frankly it’s trying to get them hooked on different series.  If they read a Mary Higgins Clark, they are going to read more Mary Higgins Clark,” Neff admitted.  

Neff sees getting kids to read more as something of a national crisis.  Reading is losing the competition to screen time.  Constantly “flitting” between different screens and never focusing on one thing for long is leaving a generation without the focus to take on more complicated tasks, he said.

“The reading, just doing that one thing for hours, is so important,” Neff said.