How educators, librarians are connecting students with books to prevent COVID-19 summer literacy slide

After a socially distanced spring of online learning, school and county librarians are making an effort to put real books in the hands of students for a screen-free summer in an effort to stave off an anticipated “COVID slide” in literacy skills.

Experts fear students will experience an exaggerated version of the summer slide this year. When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close this spring, many districts were unprepared to transition to online learning, setting the stage for a significantly longer learning gap than during a typical summer despite best efforts to salvage the spring. 

Over a typical summer, students are estimated to lose up to a month of grade-level-equivalent learning. A report by NWEA Research predicts 3rd-graders’ RIT scores, which measure instructional level and growth, will drop well below their mid-March levels.

Public library connections

Reading over the summer is a critical component to avoiding the summer slide, said Idaho State Librarian Stephanie Bailey-White. Students who continue reading over the summer can gain a year or two over their peers who don’t, she said.

With many libraries still closed, librarians in Idaho are working to provide virtual and online programs. Many libraries in the state are offering curbside services and providing books at school grab-and-go meal stations.

With Latinx students making up 18% of the state’s student population, the library system provides books in different languages and is always trying to bridge those gaps, Bailey-White said. “Right now, we are looking at ways our libraries can get more access to e-books, which are expensive,” she added.

Digital books are good for older students who are used to accessing information online, though some older students prefer books as a way to escape technology.

“But when it comes to younger students, we always say, ‘A lap is better than an app,’” she said.

‘Book in students’ hands’

When schools closed, students at North Shore Middle School on Long Island, New York, quickly transitioned to distance learning. Thanks to the school’s digital book platform, Sora, students didn’t miss a beat, said Nina Livingston, library media specialist at North Shore.

“None of the English classes suffered because we had Sora already up and running,” Livingston said. In early April, for example, the online book platform made the Harry Potter series available to students through school accounts.

But as summer approached, Livingston made it her mission to get hardcover books in the hands of the school’s 600 students. She was able to make it happen with support from her principal and $5,000 in funds from the school’s parent teacher organization.

“Students have spent the last three months reading everything digitally,” she said. “We wanted them all to have an actual book in their hands.”

There is something magical about hardcover books, Livingston said. Books can be brought outside, they can go in the car, and they don’t have batteries that low.

In typical years, students check books out from the library for summer reading. This year, Livingston had to go a different route by purchasing new books — but finding 600 hardcover books wasn’t easy during closures.

“Trying to get books from the publishers during COVID was next to impossible,” she said.

Livingston was finally able to partner with an independent book store, Book Revue in Livingston, New York, which worked with publishers to get all the titles needed.

The library media specialist selected six books that ranged in genres spanning memoirs, graphic novels, mysteries and adventures. Students made their choices online and were able to pick the hardcover books up by the end of June.

“Every kid now has a hardcover book in their hands,” she said. “It was really exciting, especially for the incoming 6th-graders.”

Story walks

Many young readers rely on public libraries during the summer to maintain their reading schedules. Because many libraries remain closed, the Coffee County Lannom Memorial Public Library in Tullahoma, Tennessee, found ways to keep kids connected to books through interesting — and socially distanced — book walks during curbside pickup.

“We have a storybook walk behind our library that we change out every two weeks with books on a theme,” said Leslie Warren, a librarian. The story walk currently features the book “Falling for Rapunzel.”

The library also provides weekly baskets filled with books, which are changed out regularly for sanitization, and weekly craft project materials. Additionally, the city has 13 Little Free Library stations that remain well-stocked, Warren said.

“Book cuddling”

Hardcover and paperback books are important tools for very early age groups, said Shannon Pimemtel, program supervisor for First 5, San Luis Obispo County Office of Education in California.

“When parents read to their child, it creates strong bonding and promotes improved language and listening skills,” she said, noting that it also promotes a love of books and learning. “We call it ‘book cuddling.’”

Using resources from the nonprofit Raising A Reader, a national children’s literacy program, Pimentel is distributing literacy book bags to 46 early education programs in the district, from Pre-K and kindergarten classes to Head Starts, private preschools and homeless shelters. She is even distributing some bags to laundromats.

The books and resources in the bag do not need to be returned.

“With COVID, we all went into online learning through iPads and computers,” she said. “But we are reminding parents to pull out these books, which can also help with math and science concepts.”

The bags include instructions that teach parents how to ask open-ended questions that promote imagination and allow students to make their own connections.

“The child is practicing their listening skills and building their vocabulary,” she said. “But they are also building their social-emotional learning. The books inside these bags open up conversations about empathy, emotional expression and help children understand hope, worry and happiness.”

Michael Goodbody, STEAM innovation manager for San Diego Unified School District, is also using Raising A Reader initiative in his district. The program is important because it puts books in the hands of students, he said, but also gives parents background on how to properly support their children.

“Parents have been asked to do more in these times of uncertainty, and we should do anything we can to support them as they help their children,” Goodbody said.

Physical books, as opposed to digital ones, allow families to get outside, and that’s important, he said.

“We aren’t just worried about students’ learning, we are worried about how they are feeling during this time, how secure and healthy they feel,” he said.

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