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Pandemic squeezes school libraries

From a fundraising aspect, lockdowns and other COVID protocols have limited, and in some cases eliminated, events such as pizza days, movie nights or barbecues.

Librarian Denise Natyshak outside Blossom Park Public School.

When Denise Natyshak, librarian at Blossom Park Public School, receives a box of new books for Scholastic, students follow her from the office to the library, asking what’s inside.

“If it’s graphic novels, they are so excited,” she says. “They’re a huge draw.”

That’s not surprising. It’s a genre that serves many among Blossom Park’s K-8 student population, where more than 60 per cent of their English language learner, or ELL, students are at a beginner level.

This week, the school is hosting its twice-annual Scholastic book fair. Apart from giving parents and students access to new books from Scholastic, the fair provides a fundraising stream for the library, with the publisher offering cash or a credit based on sales, with which the library can purchase new books.

But, just as COVID-19 has decimated businesses everywhere, it has hurt school libraries, and Natyshak is keeping this year’s expectations low, aiming to make enough to buy just 10 new graphic novels.

That’s a far cry from November 2019, prior to the pandemic, when Blossom Park’s fair raised over $1,350 in a Scholastic credit. Last year, COVID forced the fair online, where it raised just over $270, a drop of 80 per cent.

There are many reasons for the decline. For one, online fairs simply don’t attract the crowds that in-person ones do. Additionally, Scholastic offers schools a flat 20 per cent credit at virtual fairs, whereas the sliding scale for in-person fairs can reach 60 per cent.

“The online program was developed during the pandemic to offer a simple alternative for schools not able to host in-person events,” Scholastic Canada’s Denise Anderson says. The higher rate offered for in-person fairs, she adds, “acknowledges the extensive effort put in by Book Fair chairpeople on these large-scale events.”

Natyshak says her school can’t hope to earn virtually what it did in 2019. Five days into this fall’s 11-day fair, Blossom Park has sold enough to earn an $80 credit. Yet she remains an advocate for Scholastic, noting it does more than other publishers to get books into libraries.

“If it weren’t for them, I don’t know how most of the school libraries would stay afloat.”

But the pandemic has hurt in other ways.

From a fundraising aspect, lockdowns and other COVID protocols have limited, and in some cases eliminated, events such as pizza days, movie nights or barbecues.

“Parent councils haven’t been able to raise money, so we know that they aren’t going to be a source of extra income for us,” Natyshak says.

The pandemic has had greater negative effects on communities that were socioeconomically disadvantaged to begin with, with economic, language, technological and mobility issues, plus higher rates of COVID, conspiring to harden life in those areas and making school participation more difficult.

A 2019 Citizen investigation showed that councils at the top 10 per cent of Ottawa’s public elementary schools raised an average of $172 per student in the previous school year, while the bottom 10 per cent raised just under nine dollars per student. Blossom Park and nearby Sawmill Creek Elementary School, where Natyshak is also librarian, were both near the bottom, raising $41.62 and $20.88, respectively, 84th and 101st among 113 schools.

“There have been lost jobs, food prices have gone up, gas prices have gone up,” Natyshak says, “so we know that most students’ parents probably have less to spend.

“COVID has created enormous, unexpected roadblocks for collection development. Many of my colleagues have shared their deep concerns about the lack of funds being generated from their online books fairs. For some, this is their only means of providing students with the books they love.”

But many question whether public school libraries should have to seek funding beyond the public purse to satisfy student needs.

Justine Bell, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board trustee for Somerset-Kitchissippi.
Justine Bell, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board trustee for Somerset-Kitchissippi. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

Justine Bell, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board trustee in Somerset/Kitchissippi, says the situation “makes my blood boil.”

“I just don’t understand why a teacher needs parents to fundraise to get books for the school. That, to me, seems like a basic part of our public education system that should be provided by the ministry’s funds for public education, and we’ve seen significant cuts over the years to what is there to support education.”

Anita Brooks Kirkland, who chairs Canadian School Libraries, a national non-profit charitable organization, agrees, noting that provincial funding for school libraries is haphazard, left to school boards and, in some cases, principals to decide how to split the pie. Additionally, while some libraries are staffed by qualified teachers and library technicians, others rely on volunteers. “It’s a real dog’s breakfast,” she says.

Meanwhile, many schools, she says, simply closed their libraries, with teacher/librarians assigned to classroom duties.

“Libraries are often on the periphery, but they are hugely important. They offer an essential role in educating students. I don’t know one person who says they love reading because they did well on a book program in their classroom. They typically love reading because they found books that interest them and authors they love, and often those connections are made in libraries.

“I’m concerned about books not getting into the hands of students.”

Meanwhile, Blossom Park’s library is shrinking as COVID lockdowns have resulted in numerous books not being returned after students move, graduate or simply forget or lose them. Natashak estimates almost $800 worth of books is still “on loan” from last January’s lockdown, while even more remain outstanding from the first lockdown in 2020.

And the need for books only grows. “We’re at that point, thank goodness, where we’re starting to get more diverse and inclusive books. It’s been amazing to see over the last couple of years how many more books feature faces and situations and people who look like our students. Five years ago, it would have been impossible for me to find a book like Salma the Syrian Chef, whereas now it’s amazing, and these kids really go for it. So this is another reason why funding right now is so important because now the books that really match our needs are finally there, and we don’t have the money to get them.”

Blossom Park’s book fair can be found at virtualbookfairs.scholastic.ca/pages/5169569

bdeachman@postmedia.com