We Don’t Need the DOE to Hire “Virtual Content Specialists.” We Need to Respect and Trust School Librarians.

by Ashley Hawkins

I am a school librarian for a high school campus which was without a librarian for about a decade.

I woke up this morning with a full schedule and several things I wanted to get accomplished. I had three separate Zoom meetings to attend, an important email to send to staff, and a minor surgical procedure scheduled for this afternoon. While I shoveled some breakfast into my mouth rapidly before the first meeting (our UFT building meeting regarding our current situation) after sending out the email to my teachers (a survey asking them which virtual lessons they would like me to build for them to plug into their classes), I checked Twitter and learned that the DOE was planning on hiring “Virtual Content Specialists” whose entire job would encompass about 50% of what I’ve been doing every single day since March.

According to §91.2, “all NYC secondary schools must employ a part-time certified school library media specialist, at minimum, and schools with more than 700 students must employ a full-time media specialist.” But certified school librarians are hard to find despite all of this, in direct violation of a state mandate. And since COVID-19 started ravaging our city, the certified school librarians in our system have been pulling double time. As a Google Certified educator, I was training teachers how to use Google Classroom over the phone. I spent so much time vetting digital resources that my eyes turned red. I sat in on department meetings, figured out how to distribute digital books legally to students, and started writing grants. And I was far from the only school librarian pulling sixteen-hour days. I know of colleagues who ran a gamut of programs for their school communities and have kept me on my toes trying to keep up with their sheer brilliance and ingenuity in such a trying time.

The creation of this “Virtual Content Specialist” position is a slap in the face of every school librarian who has put the time and effort into the rapid shift to virtual learning. It’s a slap in the face to every student who sits in a school building without a functioning school library or a certified school librarian. There are 1800 schools in the DOE, but only 300 certified school librarians documented in the annual survey of school librarians. The campuses that don’t have school librarians align with our poorest neighborhoods. A student not having access to an information professional, a rich tapestry of books, or technology support would be unheard of in the richest neighborhoods of Manhattan. But in many schools, particularly those hit hardest by COVID-19, you can see the gaps. The lack of school libraries and librarians is an equity issue. Research shows that a certified school librarian is a key to success for our students, but it’s a corner frequently cut.

Why does there need to be a new position covering what a certified school librarian is best at? Our own Office of Library Services has created a Translation of Practice that has been nationally and internationally recognized for its value, and it clearly delineates the role that this “Virtual Content Specialist” would do as within the purview of a school librarian. It is unclear why the DOE would not recognize this, unless of course they are ignoring what it is we do on a daily basis. 

It’s time for the DOE to step up and hire school librarians, and stop ignoring the work we put into our communities. There’s no need to hire random “Virtual Content Specialists” when you already have a workforce doing these tasks and the ability to hire a highly skilled professional who is capable not only of building virtual content but also collection development, curriculum support, book access (including eBooks!), grant writing, program development, club activities, and so much more.

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