Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Update: Middle school library life in these Omicron times

First of all, please accept my apologies for the long radio silence, and my thanks for still coming to visit my little blog while I’ve been off doing other things.

Happy New Year, by the way.
I hope 2022 treats you as gently as possible.

I am still figuring out this work-life-writing gig. Back in September, I tried writing on Saturday mornings, but it turns out I really need to have a time in the week where I don’t have to do very much, and Saturday mornings before everyone else is up are tailor made for that.

In giving myself Saturday mornings to do whatever, I promised myself that I’d catch up on writing over school holidays. But at Thanksgiving, things had gotten better enough pandemic-wise that we could go visit my family in Dallas for the first time in two years, so of course we chose to do that.

Things were still good enough at the early part of Winter Break for us to take our first family vacation in more than two years, so of course we chose to do that too.

My daughter, dressed in black trench coat, with a brown fedora, a black mask, a long blond ponytail, and of course black pants and shoes, on a beach made mostly of black & brown sand, with lava rocks and a steel grey sea. It's all very goth and she plans to use it as her author photo one day.
The now 14-Year-Old standing on a beach in Maui in December 2021. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Both were great, and I have few regrets.

So, what’s it like to work in a school right now?

If I were you, I’d be really curious to know what it’s like to work in a school library during Omicron. Before I continue, I want to set the stage.

I am so fortunate to be working in a school district that has put a number of safety measures in place:

  • Vaccine mandates for staff, substitutes, and volunteers
  • Mask mandates for everyone on campus (enforced & almost universally complied with)
  • Surgical masks available in student and adult sizes in the library and in the office for students & staff who need a fresh mask for whatever reason
  • So many hand-washing & hand sanitizing stations
  • Ventilation upgrades in classrooms, the library, the gym, and all shared indoor spaces
  • A permanent substitute on site who swaps in for teachers as needed to ease staff shortages
  • Lunch is served inside, but it is eaten outside (yay, California!)
  • Portable chairs for teachers and staff, courtesy of the PTA, to make it easy for us to eat safely outside as well
  • Band and choir classes held outside
  • Free weekly testing on-site along with free daily testing Monday – Friday at a former high school turned community center for all staff and students

In addition, we have both a school nurse and multiple school counselors with predictable, regular hours. They weren’t hired just for Covid, but they have been invaluable as we navigate these Covid times.

I can rattle off these things so easily because I have spent the week reminding myself of them as Omicron rages on.

The reason I have been rattling them off so frequently is because our superintendent has vowed to keep our schools open unless the county forces them to close or so many of us get sick that staffing simply isn’t possible any more. That’s hard for someone like me, who spent almost two years fully huddled up, to process without a constant reminder of all the things the district has done to earn the right to try to keep schools open throughout the Omicron wave.

And in truth, these measures worked great last fall. The week we left for Winter Break we had something like a dozen cases across the entire district. The first week we returned from Winter Break, that number had increased to 382 cases district-wide.

Of course, many of those cases resulted from exposures over the holidays, but school doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Those community-acquired cases ripple into schools through staff and student absences, and new exposures at school from people who didn’t realize they had Covid yet. And yes, I know from Twitter that this is a tiny number compared to what some districts are enduring.

Still, it’s having an impact.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Sure we’ve been wearing masks, eating outside, leaving the doors and windows open, and asking our substitutes and volunteers to prove their vaccination status before coming on campus all year, but now for the first time, it feels like I’m working at a school during a raging pandemic. (Keep in mind, this is my first year, so those Covid restrictions that were a big change for everyone else were just the way school worked to me.)

Because local case rates are so high right now (264 cases per 100K people), our superintendent has asked staff to behave as if they have been or will be exposed every day they report to work. The district has stopped sending out contact notices because so many people have Covid everyone would get a contact notice every single day. This, combined with the staff and student absences, has not been a calming message. Still, if you are determined to do everything possible to keep schools open during the Omicron spike, telling everyone to assume that they will be exposed and to take whatever steps they feel necessary to mitigate that exposure in advance, seems like the only remaining option.

Two selfies - the one on the left taken in August 2021 before school started, the other taken January 2022 in the midst of the Omicron wave. On the left I'm wearing just a simple cloth mask. On the right my kit has been upgraded to include an N95, a decorative dragon mask over it, and a purple knit cap to hide the N95 straps.
When Omicron hit, I had to make a few upgrades. Instead of a comfy cloth mask, I’m wearing an N95 that loops around the back of my head. I’ve covered it with a fun but purely decorative dragon cloth mask, and am wearing a cap to hide the N95 straps, which frankly don’t play well with my haircut. I don’t know if you can tell from this photo, but that dragon is reading a book. I’m also testing twice a week now, instead of just once. (Photos: Shala Howell, August 2021 – left, January 2022 – right)

That first week back, my husband made me a Corsi-Rosenthal box out of a box fan and five Merv 13 air filters to keep at the circulation desk for some high-intensity air filtration in the section of the library that gets the most traffic and where I happen to spend most of my time. It’s been in the library chugging away all week. So far, none of the students have expressed any curiosity at all about it, which frankly, is pretty weird. Usually I get 12 questions a day about minor changes in the library. That thing is massive and made from love and duct tape, so I would have expected more questions about it. I’m going to add giant googly eyes to it this week to see if that helps.

Everyone on campus is walking around in winter hats and coats, because anyone who can open their doors or windows does, and no one likes being cold. Again, we’re lucky we are in California and can open our windows in winter without freezing the school’s pipes.

Like me, at least half of the student body and staff have upgraded their masks in some way. By far the most common switch has been from cloth to surgical or KN95 masks, although a few have started double-masking (cloth over surgical, mostly).

What’s attendance been like?

At our school alone, a dozen teachers were out that first week in January, including my fellow librarian. For context, this is roughly 15-20% of our faculty. Attendance is down among the student body, too. Informally, my daughter reports that lunch lines at the high school, which used to be horrendous, are nearly non-existent. About 20% of the students in her classes are absent on any given day. So far, none of her teachers have been out.

I don’t really have insight into class attendance or the lunch lines at my middle school, since I’m just in the library and don’t float around campus. But I have noticed that our crowds before school and at lunch are roughly 25% smaller. The students who do come are much more subdued and anxious.

I’ve been getting emails from worried patrons kept at home unexpectedly for Covid restrictions, telling me about books they can’t return on time, clearly fretting that I’ll somehow hold this against them. More and more students are using my Hold Shelf to keep their books in between bouts of reading at the library instead of checking them out, because they are worried that they, like their fellows, will be abruptly placed in isolation and don’t want to have to deal with keeping track of their library books on top of everything else. Students who used to come to read have gravitated to finding quiet spots by themselves to stare out windows or write in their journals. The Rubik’s cubes have remained popular, but instead of grabbing the oddball Pyramid and sphere-shaped Rubik’s cubes first, the students are competing to get the much more familiar 3x3s.

How long will this last?

I don’t know what I’ll find when I wander back to school this morning. Were the absences those first two weeks a post-holiday aberration? Will the four days we’ve had off for MLK day be enough of a fire break to tamp transmission? Or are we in a surge that is going to last for a while?

It’s hard to tell. The district only reports numbers once a week, and only includes cases that they can trace directly back to an exposure at school, so the numbers on their dashboard don’t necessarily correspond to what we are seeing at school. Yes, I can understand why the district would focus on tracking case spread at school, but all those folks who acquired Covid from some other part of their life are still absent. And the result is that I’m left trying to piece together what’s happening at the school through shared anecdotes of what other staff members see in their small slice of it.

I can tell you that the superintendent put out a call for parent volunteers to provide emergency supplemental staffing. A small army of parents were on campus late last week getting a tour and brief training on the various jobs we would need them to do. I know, because one of those jobs is for the library, so I got to meet some of them. As my daughter would say, I have two feelings about this. I am so very grateful that they are there, and so sorry that we need them.

Still life must go on

This week we’re judging our Winter Writing Contest. Several students have asked me for personalized feedback on their stories after the contest is over, which makes me happy.

We are also kickstarting our annual reading marathon (Book-a-thon), where teachers and staff donate prizes that we raffle off to students who read at least one book between mid-January and mid-March.

It’s also time for me to make a new set of genre-bending book recommendation lists based on the book requests I get from students at the library (“I’m looking for a funny but dramatic book, Ms. Shala. What should I read?” “I’m looking for an LGBTQ+ book, but one that’s about normal everyday life stuff, not fantasy or paranormal adventures.” “I’m looking for a historical fiction book, but with real people.”)

In other news, our Sponsor-A-Book fundraiser before Winter Break was wildly successful, with parents signing up to sponsor about two-thirds of the books on our 100+ long wish list. Parents are amazing, and I love them. Supply chain issues in the book manufacturing world are real, though, and although we placed our Sponsor-A-Book order back in mid-December, it could easily be mid-March at the earliest before it comes in. Still, new books! Yay! (Eventually.)

What about you?

Are your schools open? What are you seeing / experiencing? I would love to hear how things are going in your part of the country, if you have time and/or the inclination to tell me.

Until next time, as always, thank you for reading. I hope you are (and remain) as well as can be expected.

– Shala

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2 Responses to “Update: Middle school library life in these Omicron times”

  1. rayworth1973

    In my job, vaccines are mandatory, and I have to wear a mask when I’m away from my desk. Most telecommute but that’s fine with me. I love my job and I’m a happy camper.


    • Shala Howell

      Hello, friend. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I have been away from the blog for a while, as you could probably tell. I’m so glad you’re still a happy camper. I’m enjoying my new library gig as well. It helps that vaccines were mandatory long enough to get most of the staff vaccinated. The mask mandate has been dropped as of mid-March, but so far everyone seems to be content to let folks make their own choices around masking, so fingers crossed that live and let live approach continues.

      Liked by 1 person


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