So now that vaccines are available and it seems almost everyone has succumbed to pandemic fatigue and are ready to move on and get back to normal, despite vaccination rates being far below what is needed for herd immunity and the virus continuing to mutate and produce variants that may be even more dangerous, what does that mean for library programming and services? How do we begin the transition back to normal? Is the old normal even possible? How do we balance the desire for a return to normal with concerns for not only our own health, but the health and safety of our youngest patrons who don't even have the option of being vaccinated yet, especially when faced with pressure from parents who don't share those concerns and administrations who want things back to business as usual?
None of these are easy questions, and I have been wrestling with them for the last few months as I tried to figure out summer programming and begin to plan for fall. Our summer has been a painful, confusing mish-mash of take-home kits, virtual programs, and limited in-person programs. At the time we had to start planning summer programs, we didn't know what the situation would be like, and didn't want to invest in planning the usual big, expensive in-person programs that might have to be canceled, and decided to stick with virtual and kits. That was the right decision at the time, as none of us really expected the mask mandate and other restrictions to be dropped until the fall.
But much to our surprise, the CDC made their big announcement in May, which put everyone else in a very difficult position. When the state and local governments dropped their mask mandates and other restrictions, we felt we had no choice but to do the same; without the state mandates to fall back on it would be too difficult and potentially dangerous for staff to try to enforce mask-wearing and other restrictions. About this same time, people had been asking for storytime to start again, and I was tired of virtual programming, so I decided to try having in-person storytimes outdoors where we could spread out more and have ventilation over the summer. I also quickly planned some simple drop-in family programs outside, things like sidewalk chalk art, bubble party, giant games, water play, etc.
So far the summer has been a very awkward transition and somewhat of a let-down to the public who was hoping for the usual big, flashy programs. No one is watching the virtual programs, and some of the take-home kits leave much to be desired. However, storytime is doing fairly well, and I am really enjoying finally getting to interact with real live children! Being outside has its challenges: visibility since we're spread out more, road noise from being on a busy street, and the heat, but it is so much better than virtual! My drop-in family activities have had some participation, maybe not as much as I'd like, but at least enough worth doing. Patrons are enjoying finally having library programs again, but they would like more and are clearly ready to get back to normal.
Which brings us to the conundrum of planning for fall. Our patrons seem more than ready to resume attending in-person programs, I would love to get back to normal programs, and upper management wants us to resume regular in-person programming ASAP. But, I am struggling with it because though *I* may be vaccinated and now no longer so concerned about *my* health, children under 12 still can't be vaccinated. When you consider that along with the unfortunate facts we are unlikely to ever reach herd immunity (the vaccination rate in our community is only 30%) and the virus is mutating with new variants such as Delta becoming more prevalent and potentially more dangerous, I can't help but be somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of having a bunch of kids close together indoors in an enclosed space with adults that may not be vaccinated.
Will we go right back to exactly what programming was being done a year and a half ago? Maybe, maybe not. It seems to me that it would be foolish to expect things to just go right back to the way they were in 2019. I think it's a good time to start fresh, re-evaluate things, and assess what the community needs and wants NOW. I also think it will take some time to rebuild, and we aren't going to see the numbers we were seeing before. I do hope we get back to public libraries being a welcoming community center and seeing lots of families coming in, but I also hope maybe we step it back just a little, and stop trying to be everything to everybody, and stop being afraid to have reasonable boundaries and behavior expectations.
What elements of pandemic programming and services will we retain in some fashion? I think we need to continue to be more vigilant about hygiene and sanitization than we were before, just as a matter of best practice. I think curbside service maybe here to stay, though I have noticed ours has dropped off considerably. Virtual programming, I don't know. Maybe in some form or fashion, but I for one hope I never have to do virtual storytimes again, though I wouldn't mind virtual booktalks, or quick cute & fun demos or teasers. However, I think for the most part people are done with it here. Take-home kits? No doubt these were a great success, and I was proud of what I was able to put together. But should they continue once regular programming returns? For me, it's simply not possible with our level of staffing and teeny tiny programming budget; it just isn't sustainable.
Kits are time-consuming, expensive, and generate a lot of plastic waste. Sure, people love free stuff and will take them if available, but I wonder how many of them just ended up in the trash? And do any of the caretakers use them as a learning and bonding activity to do WITH the child as intended, or was it just something to hand to the kid to keep them occupied? I feel take-home kits just don't serve to promote literacy and learning as well, nor do they promote library use or lead to increased library visits (other than to run in and grab the kit) or increased circulation. Take-home kits just don't have the same connected learning without a presenter/facilitator to guide and interact with the kids, nor do they allow staff to build relationships with families in the same way as in-person. But at the same time, they are an option for those who are not able or comfortable attending in-person programs.
I know some feel we should do everything to accommodate everyone, and while that might be ideal, for many of us it just isn't reality. If you have the staffing and budget to do it all, more power to you! I envy your generous budget and adequate staffing! Volunteers, you say? Well, that might help with time, but that doesn't help with money, and have you ever actually worked with volunteers? I've worked with many teen and adult volunteers, and good, capable, dependable volunteers are extremely valuable, but also few and far between. Besides, volunteers should never be accepted as the answer to understaffing.
So where do we go from here? I don't think any of us really quite know for sure, and I think we still have a rather difficult year ahead as we sort it all out and try to regain some sense of normal, even if it's a not quite the same as the old normal, all the while having nagging concerns about the health and safety of ourselves and our patrons. I encourage everyone to take it slow, take baby steps, ease it to it. And as always, don't be afraid to set limits and boundaries, don't be afraid to experiment, and don't be afraid to fail. We are in uncharted territory here, and we are all figuring it out as we go. Don't be too hard on yourselves, and don't be too hard on others who may be doing things a little differently.
I'd love to hear what your summer is looking like, and what your thoughts, plans, and concerns are for the upcoming fall programming season!