Thursday Thoughts: In-Person Pandemic Storytimes

It’s been 16 weeks since my library pivoted back to in-person, indoor storytimes. With vaccine approval for the under 5 crowd supposedly coming in the first half of 2022, it sounds like most public libraries will be joining us soon (if they haven’t already).

When I asked on social media what you wanted to know, people responded:

  • Coping with anxiety about the risk
  • How you’re intentionally scaffolding
  • How to keep kids focused – it’s been awhlile for them
  • How to manage the need/high demand with staffing and space limitations
  • How many kids per group
  • Mask requirements
  • Maintaining 6 feet apart
  • Play time or extra stuff
  • Why must we?!
  • WHY

Unfortunately, I can’t really speak to safety and transmission mitigation measures. Library leadership complies with local health orders and… well. Earlier in the pandemic, when the previous health department tried to issue a mask mandate, the county commissioners made a new health department. In the midst of our second worst statewide surge yet (in which county adult ICU beds are 100% occupied and there are less than 100 available beds across the state), this is what they had to say:

1637866261820_1637866256167_1637866254016_FB_IMG_1637864416521

My Governor isn’t much better, frankly. When asked recently about passing a statewide mask mandate, he said that the emergency has passed now that vaccines are available. If you haven’t gotten vaccinated by now, it’s your own darn fault, he says… (except vaccines are not available for children under five and some people can’t get vaccinated)… then he compared masks to wearing jackets in winter and COVID to frostbite (even though frostbite isn’t contagious)… but I digress.

Although the policy in regards to health and safety is, in my opinion, pretty much nothing (no masking, no registration required, no group size limits), I will talk about what my teammates and I do within the scope of our personal power. I’ll talk about my experience storytiming in a mask, the ways I’ve adapted my storytimes, and so on.

But first, I want to start with the most important question we should always ask – WHY.

Starting with Why

Sharing stories and making reading fun is still a compelling and important “why” for libraries to provide storytimes, whether virtually or in person. Preliminary research suggests that early literacy has been hit hard by the pandemic and that many families have struggled to keep up with regular shared reading routines.

As for storytime in-person… well, I can only speculate as to why. Commissioners have been leaning heavily on all local institutions to “return to normal” since March of 2020, when they declared the pandemic over in my county. And so, after a summer of storytimes in the great outdoors, we returned inside on August 16th and resumed our full pre-pandemic storytime schedule. Most metro area libraries in the state made similar moves either shortly before or shortly thereafter. There seemed to be a common unspoken consensus that once school resumed in-person, library programs would do the same.

Some libraries took advantage of this moment to examine their “why” more closely and make thoughtful changes. For example, I know some libraries are keeping virtual storytimes in the evening because it’s much less invasive to a family’s bedtime routine. Some libraries are changing their storytime hours and adding more options for mixed-age audiences. I think this is an especially wise move given the continued decline of school enrollment in the lower grades.

Most libraries decided to require registration and limit group size. Some determined this number by following the regular room capacity limit; some did the math and figured out how many people could space six feet apart within their given room’s square footage. Some require this registration online, others take walk-ins at the door until no more can fit. Every library’s model could and should look different depending on the needs of the community.

Who was underserved by the previous storytime schedule? Is there a change you’ve always wanted to try, but never had the opportunity to do so? Perhaps you’ve been wanting to try smaller, registration-required storytimes. Now you have health and science on your side to argue your case! If you will be providing both in-person and virtual program options for patrons (or need a second person to help enforce a mask mandate), perhaps you can use this moment to advocate for more youth services staff. If you are still in a program pause or in a flexible situation where you can make changes, now is the time to ask questions and brainstorm the possibilities.

Start small, if you can. It is much easier to add more later than to take away!

A word to the wise: start small, if you can. It is much easier to add more later than to take away! With the high turnover in libraries lately, you likely have new faces to train on your team. And even us old hats need some time to transition back into the swing of things.

Staying Safe (ish)

Although many factors are outside of our control, staff do what we can to encourage everyone to storytime safely. First and foremost, everyone on my team wears a mask. Fortunately, we have a fantastic wireless necklace microphone and speaker set from Lightspeed, so sound is not an issue. We also make adult and child-sized masks readily available on a table near the storytime room entrance.

What is it like to storytime in a mask? The only time I find it uncomfortable is when singing and dancing – I feel overheated and stifled. I am using more recorded music in my storytimes than ever before and I’m not sorry about it! Most of the adults don’t say anything about our masks; a few have said thank you; a few have complained that masks are “scary” or “their kids can’t learn” when they can’t see our faces.

We’ve made changes to our room arrangement. Prior to the pandemic, kids gathered on the storytime rug, while adults sat mostly outside the rug in a ring. Now we have repurposed yoga mats from another program to encourage families to sit together and space apart. This comes with the added benefit of encouraging caregiver participation!

20211005_095814

If your program space has carpet flooring, you could use these cool velcro carpet spots:

163609

Toys were another non-negotiable part of “returning to normal.” So, at the end of storytime, I always give families an opportunity to exit the room before bringing out the toys. If they choose to stay, I encourage them to play however feels best for their family, and I emphasize that it is okay to take toys back to their individual mats. I also use bubbles much more frequently in storytime these days, walking around to each mat so that all families can enjoy some sort of play (even if they aren’t staying for toys). This is super easy with our fantastic handheld, battery operated 1 By One Bubble Machine.

We avoid the use of soft fabric toys. We clean the toys we do put out immediately afterwards using an electrostatic cleaning gun or wipes. We launder scarves and ribbons after every use, and we wipe down hard instruments, such as shakers, immediately afterwards as well.

To improve air circulation, we leave one set of the sliding glass doors open to our room. This adds some extra challenges to storytime – noise filtering in, kids wanting to wander out and explore. I try to block this side with seating furniture so it’s less distracting.

We avoid activities and props that encourage crowding (e.g. the parachute). I’m reading more big books or scanning books and enlarging them for our media cart screen. With no registration and the typical toddler storytime drawing anywhere from 40-80 attendees, kids can’t see if I read a regular sized picture book, or they come close to the front and crowd the book. I am also avoiding or adapting lyrics to songs and rhymes that encourage children to touch their faces.

Same, But Different

Baby storytimes are perhaps the most unchanged, since caregivers have always sat with their young ones. I have noticed a wider variety of motor abilities in the room than ever before; with the decline in preschool/kindergarten enrollment, older siblings are more likely to be in attendance these days. I do most rhymes twice, first demonstrating how to do the rhyme with a lap puppet and then once more standing up for my walkers.

As I expected, toddler storytimes are the most challenging. This is the age group most likely to have no previous large group social experience. It’s brand new and overwhelming for them! Most frequently this manifests as what I call the “sit and stare.” When doing bubbles, it’s not uncommon for half the toddlers to remain seated on their mats and just watch. Giving wait time when asking questions is more important than ever with these quiet kiddos!

Going in, I expected this overstimulation to manifest more as crying and running around. So far, this hasn’t much been the case for my crowd… except for that one time with the nipple pincher, but that’s a blog post for another time.

Going Slowly

Have you ever heard, “Go slow to go fast?” I was given this golden advice as a teacher in regards to the beginning of the school year. I think it applies here, too. So many kids and families are coming with no previous context. We are all learning how to storytime together again!

Go slow to go fast.

I started my storytimes short and sweet. I’ve always done 15-20 minutes for baby storytime followed by play time. This became my initial time frame for other age groups as well. I got a few complaints from caregivers who remembered storytimes being longer in the before times, but they were responsive when I shared my strategy. I explained that the most important thing is for their child to have a successful and positive storytime experience, and that we would be building capacity over the following weeks/months. Now that we’ve got a group of regulars, we’re storytiming again for 25-30 minutes on most days.

I introduced props and instruments (such as the flannelboard or egg shakers) VERY slowly. My first storytimes didn’t contain any props at all! When I started bringing back props, I introduced only one new prop per week. I planned a lot of time for transition moments and room for self-guided exploration. I let the kids get accustomed to the materials before expecting them to do anything directed with them. My advice is to focus on HOW you’re connecting activities and moving from one thing to the next just as much as the books and songs you are choosing.

Since we’ve been trying to reduce crowding, this means passing out props to each individual mat, rather than having kids come up to grab their own. Here’s a handy new transition song I learned from my teammate Lauren to help manage these waiting moments:

Tune: If You’re Happy and You Know It

Put your hands in the air, in the air.
Put your hands in the air, in the air.
We’re about to sing a song and if you’d like to shake along,
Put your hands in the air, in the air!

And here’s a new transition song from me:

Tune: Clementine

We are waiting, we are waiting,
We are waiting for our scarves!
We are waiting, we are waiting,
We are waiting for our scarves…

Repeat: we are clapping, we are singing, we are stomping, etc.

When we return from our winter storytime break, I plan to eliminate this potentially painful pause by just putting out props on the mats before storytime starts. This did NOT go well when I tried it a few times with the toddlers this fall, but I’m hoping that by January, we will have built enough self-regulation.

Setting & Adjusting Expectations

Earlier I mentioned that we are all learning how to storytime again. I’ve blogged before about how I set storytime expectations (with a special post dedicated to expectations in baby storytime) and I encourage you to check out those posts if you are looking for specific verbiage and sample messages. I just want to emphasize how important it is to consistently set these expectations when you come back! Let families know that storytime is a time when we read stories and sing songs, and that we do it all together. Don’t assume that anyone knows “the rules” or has context for what you’re doing.

Meet kids and caregivers where they are.

Speaking of assumptions, let go of what you think is “normal” for babies/toddlers/preschoolers/adults. Meet kids and caregivers where they are when they come into the storytime room, not where you think they should be. Research is just now starting to explore the long-term impact of the ongoing pandemic on children’s development! There is no “normal.”

Practically, this means I always plan for more possibilities. I bring a variety of long and short books, put plenty of transition songs in my back pocket, and… I let myself abandon the plan and adapt in the moment! If we read only one book from my toddler storytime plan and spend the rest of the time singing songs and playing with bubbles, that’s fine. I also assume positive intentions. If the adults want to sit in a chair instead of on the mat with their little one, that is also fine.

You don’t know what people are bringing into the room. They could have a physical disability that prevents them from getting up and down from the floor. You could be helping them distract their child during storytime so they can finally finish the application for rental assistance on their phone. Give everyone in the room grace and flexibility – including yourself.

Struggling

Someone asked how I am coping with the anxiety about the risk and the honest answer is… not well. When a storytime family stops coming, I wonder if they caught COVID. I wonder and worry all the time, although I am a little less anxious for myself since getting boosted. My therapist is working with me on my anxiety, catastrophic thinking, and the trauma responses triggered when I feel like I have no control over a situation.

I wonder and worry all the time.

I’m also wrestling with my professional ethics. I really thought that libraries, as a trusted source of information, would come swinging out of the gates to combat COVID-19 misinformation in their communities. At the very least, I thought we would partner with local health departments and share public health recommendations. I joined this field to serve my community – not endanger them, as I fear we are doing by encouraging families to gather without mitigation measures.

I’m struggling. And many of the other adults in the room are struggling, too.

I’ve primarily addressed storytiming with childen during this post, but it’s worth pausing to talk about their caregivers as well. Families have been under a tremendous amount of stress for the past few pandemic years. According to the Colorado Children’s Campaign 2021 Kids Count Report, about one-third of Colorado households with children have struggled to pay for housing and household expenses. Parents reported increased mental health struggles (which we know impacts children’s mental health as well). At any given time, nearly a quarter of Colorado families have difficulty finding childcare or experience childcare disruptions. 1 in 5 families reported skipping prenatal visits; almost the same number reported skipping wellness visits to the doctor for children under 3. (Side note: now is a good time to become familiar with and comfortable connecting families with services like CDE’s Child Find, part of the state’s FREE early intervention program).

I suggest libraries invest in trauma-informed service training. COVID-19 has been and continues to be a mass traumatic experience. An institutional level, trauma-informed approach can help staff better care for themselves, each other and library patrons.

Even with the worry, there’s still magic.

Even with the worry, there’s still magic in being together and so many special moments to celebrate. I’ve seen first steps and heard first words. I’ve been bowled over by kids sprinting across the library to give me a hug. I’ve seen the community we’re creating during storytime support and uplift each other… I just miss the uncomplicated joy storytime used to bring.

Storytime is both weird and wonderful these days. What’s your status? I would love to connect in the comments below!

Links Referenced:

Blog Post – Starting Storytime with Gratitude: https://storytimeinthestacks.com/2019/11/28/thursday-thoughts-starting-storytime-with-gratitude/

Blog Post – Baby Storytime and Behavior Messages: https://storytimeinthestacks.com/2019/12/05/thursday-thoughts-baby-storytime-and-behavior-messages/

Bubble Machine: https://www.amazon.com/ONE-Automatic-Portable-Toddlers-Batteries/dp/B072J1GX6M

Carpet Spots: https://www.discountschoolsupply.com/stem-curriculum/stem/mathematics/carpet-mark-its—-6-colors—set-of-24/p/s710590

Child Find from the CO Department of Education: https://www.cde.state.co.us/early/childfind

Colorado Children’s Campaign Kids Count Report: https://www.coloradokids.org/data/kids-count-archive/

Library Leadership Podcast – Trauma Informed Service with Bryce Kozla: https://www.lightspeed-tek.com/product/flexmike-fm/

Lightspeed Wireless Speaker and Microphone Set: https://www.lightspeed-tek.com/product/flexmike-fm/

4 thoughts on “Thursday Thoughts: In-Person Pandemic Storytimes”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s