What does it say about a school library if, in times of upheaval, the most troubling change is how suddenly quiet the place has grown?
That’s been the most noticeable change at Sage Valley Junior High School’s library since school resumed in August amid the COVID-19 pandemic and safety precautions fundamentally altered the place.
What, then, is the school library, a space that has for so long been defined by its absence of activity, its quiet and stillness, its distinct smell that only comes from many books aging on the shelves? Is it no longer home to stern and serious-faced librarians constantly ready to shush a student for the slightest auditory infraction?
Sage Valley Principal Adam Miller certainly remembers school libraries as just such places.
“It wasn’t a place I was willing to go into,” Miller said. “It was kind of like ours where it was in the middle of the building, and it wasn’t a place that kids were allowed to go without sort of feeling bad. It wasn’t the type of place that welcomed kids to come on in.”
The school’s librarian, Haley Elliston, had a similar, if hazy, memory from her childhood.
“Honestly, I don’t even remember my librarian’s name,” Elliston said. “And I think that’s so sad. We’d go in there once in a while, we’d go in if we were doing research, but there wasn’t a lot going on in the library. It was very quiet. I don’t remember our librarian being very active or being a big part of the staff.”
Those were the libraries of yesterday. The school libraries today, especially the one on the second floor of Sage Valley, would hardly be recognizable to those certain-aged people who remember, fondly or not, libraries as stuffy, quiet, restrictive places that emphasized what one couldn’t do rather than celebrated the things one could do.
Elliston described the library at Sage Valley as “the heart of the school” and “a hub of life.”
It’s a place where students can congregate first thing in the morning. It’s a place that, before COVID-19, hosted open mic nights. It’s a place where students played board games. It’s a place where students ate lunch, some of them surely facing that moment memorialized in so many movies where they look around a cafeteria full of people and feeling like there’s no seat for them. The library is as much a home to students as any locker room, field, gym or team bus ever could be.
“I think it’s amazing, honestly,” Miller said about the role the library fills at Sage Valley. “We talk about all the different things we do for kids, but there are still kids that don’t have a place to go. They don’t have a club or a team to join. It’s great that we have another place for them to go.”
Because of that reality, the humble school library is elevated from a dusty collection of books to something much more vital. And because it was, until COVID-19 came along, a hub of life in Sage Valley, it’s one of many overlooked casualties of 2020.
A sense of community
Ellie Lehman, a 13-year-old eighth grader, described the students who made the greatest use of the library as “artsy kids or the quieter kids that kind of just want to read during lunch.”
She said the social nature of the library for many students is not a place for silence, but camaraderie.
“A lot of people come here in the morning because we all have different classes,” she said. “This is where we really get to hang out and talk with your friends before school actually starts.”
She had attended Book Club in the library the previous day. It was after school and consisted of seven eighth grade girls all gathered to discuss “Truly Deviously,” a mystery novel by Maureen Johnson. It was the same feeling of community that adults get from their book clubs when they meet in coffee shops and living rooms in the sense that book clubs are rarely, if ever, just about the books. It’s about discussion, closeness and inside jokes. It’s about shared experience.
Book Club was the last thing Lehman had done at school. The library was where she’d ended her school day. And here she was, back the next day at 7:30 a.m. The library was the first place she’d gone upon arriving at school.
But the space was not crowded. Only a few students gathered that morning, like most mornings this school year. Elliston had removed the couches and reconfigured the library to discourage the type of gathering for which it had become known.
“There’s a lot less people,” Lehman said as she looked at her surroundings. “People just come in when they need a book, but it’s not really a social place as it was last year because of the restrictions we have.”
Lehman talked of what’s different, what’s been lost. And while she spoke about it with maturity beyond her years, it’s apparent that for her, without the library at full-force, the school is somehow a little worse off, a little bit less than it had been last year.
She misses lunches in the library. Those days were her favorite.
“Usually I can hang out with my friends in here and there’s a lot more stuff in here that goes on, like open mic night,” Lehman said. “That was probably one of my best times at school, because everyone can get together and we can just have fun and sing without people, like, judging you.”
That same idea animated Levi Boeding’s thoughts about the library, which he described first and foremost as a “safe place.” Boeding, 13, is an eighth grader and son of Brittany Boeding, the library assistant at the school.
“I just really think this is a special place,” he said. “That’s why I spend most of my day here.”
More than books
Elliston recognizes that the library has been diminished by COVID-19’s restrictions, but her hands are tied. She takes great pride in her role at the school and is quick to say she and Boeding work hard to maintain the library’s reputation among the students.
There’s always going to be a market for books with certain students. Elliston said the majority of her business is still books, that kids who are readers still want a physical book in their hands. She’s not worried about them. There’s always something to interest them in the library. She doesn’t discount them and, in fact, does everything she can to keep interesting books in their hands.
She wants to expand the tent, though.
“I do see kids come in a lot and wander, kids that I don’t see all the time and part of it, I think, is they realize this is a safe place, they can come in and they can wander, and if they just need a minute, then it’s a safe place to come,” she said.
To expand the tent, she’s had to expand the concept of what a library is and can be.
“If we have this idea that the book is what holds the information, I think we’re missing the idea, the point, of reading,” Elliston said. “Reading is learning and examining information and entertaining ourselves.”
Books are only one of many places students can get those benefits.
“I think what we’ve done is we’ve just been forced to adapt to today’s generation, to today’s needs, because eventually we would be here anyway,” Elliston said. “I mean, with the way technology is going, we would be there anyway. But it’s just a matter of being forced to do it.”
COVID-19 has taught so many the power of the internet. It’s made Zoom and FaceTime into not just nouns, but verbs people regularly use. It’s increased online shopping. It’s disrupted the movie industry and sent new releases to streaming, paid for and viewed in the home. It’s allowed many workers the luxury, and isolation, of working from home.
Technology has in myriad ways sustained the country throughout the darkest days of the pandemic. But its power and effects have been seen by librarians for quite a long time now, and as it broadens our conception of what’s possible, it also takes a very real swipe at the longstanding purpose of a library: the consolidation of information. Elliston still calls the library an “information station,” but she doesn’t look to books as the main source of that information.
The tragedy of COVID-19’s effect on the library is the same thing that makes it so hopeful: The library is different than it once was; it’s about more than books.
“In schools, it’s about much more,” Elliston said. “It’s about the kids, it’s about communication, it’s about helping them.”
Some of those kids might not even know what it is they’re seeking when they walk in. And that’s OK. Despite all the changes that have come to the library over the years, it’s still a place of big ideas, of mysteries and romances, of technical truths and fanciful fantasies.
Elliston is making sure students can find them, no matter the form. In the meantime, while some of the forms may be evolving, many of those big ideas are still found in books on the shelves.
“Kids are going to come in and they’re going to pick up a book, if they want to be in here,” Elliston said. “And so even a kid who isn’t a reader, if they’re in here hanging out with their friends and they see a cover that gets their interest and they pick that book up and check it out, that’s exactly what I want.”
Throughout the past week, Campbell County has seen its count of confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to rise while active cases have decreased, a trend that has been mirrored throughout the state.
Campbell County reached 2,737 confirmed COVID-19 cases Sunday as its active cases dropped to 906, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. The drop is due to a surge of recoveries, which outpaced new COVID-19 cases 732 to 388.
In Wyoming, there have been 28,252 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. The state’s death toll remained at 215 and the number of active cases in the state dropped to 9,252 over the weekend, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
With all COVID-19 numbers there is an inherent lag in people getting results from their tests.
In Campbell County, testing is available, but getting the results may require some waiting.
After experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak among its staff, Campbell County Public Health has put its testing services on an indefinite hold. It is unclear when the agency will return to offering those services.
Campbell County Health has COVID-19 testing available by appointment. It’s recommended that anyone wanting a test coordinate through a health care provider, said CCH spokeswoman Karen Clarke.
“We have been ordering the same number of test material, the swabs, reagent for several months, but because of the huge uptick in cases there is a huge uptick in testing so we cant get the same number of supplies as we’ve been able to get previously,” she said.
While CCH processes some tests in its own lab, supply shortages and increased demand has made that more difficult to keep up with, Clarke said. Most COVID-19 tests conducted at CCH are sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for processing, causing a four- to five-day wait for results, she said.
Earlier in the pandemic, CCH could conduct most of its COVID-19 testing on-site and have results in about a day. The hospital hopes to be able to return to that, but it is unclear if and when that could be possible, Clarke said.
Just as the pandemic itself remains a fluid situation, so does health care’s response, including testing.
“It changes every day,” Clarke said.
As of Sunday, 142,860 COVID-19 tests have gone through the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory. Another 250,516 tests have been done through commercial labs, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
Since the pandemic began, there have been 18,511 COVID-19 tests processed in Campbell County. About 3,000 of those were done by Wyoming Public Health with the rest processed elsewhere, the WDH reports.
The 13.64% positivity rate on those tests is the highest mark in the state and a full 3 percentage points higher than Natrona County, which has the next highest rate.
Through the past seven days, the number of recoveries in Campbell County outpaced new cases by 344, dropping the number of active cases to 906, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
A similar trend was seen statewide, with the number of active cases in Wyoming falling from 11,186 a week ago to 9,252 as of Sunday.
With the most recent wave of recoveries throughout the state and in Campbell County, the positivity rates that have shot up throughout the fall are now trending downward. Campbell County’s 14-day rolling positivity rate fluttered above 30% for much of the past two weeks before the latest batch of recoveries caused it to plummet.
The latest measurement, recorded Friday, was 23.42%, a relatively high mark compared to the entire state but more than 10 percentage points lower than it was a week ago.
However, after tapering off through the past week, hospitalizations jumped over the weekend, tying the state record of 235 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
At Campbell County Memorial Hospital, there were 18 COVID-19 patients as of Sunday and the hospital hit a new high when it hosted 21 COVID-19 patients last week.
As part of the state’s effort to bolster its hospital resources, a federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team was deployed to Wyoming to help with the COVID-19 outbreak. The 30-member team supplied by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was split into two task forces, one of which was sent to Cheyenne and the other is serving its deployment in Campbell County.
The team of physicians and nurses are helping compensate for staffing shortages throughout the Campbell County Health system, which has had between 85 and 120 employees out of work a day due to quarantine or illness, said Noamie Niemitalo, CCH vice president of human resources.
The task force’s two-week deployment ends Wednesday, at which point the hospital hopes to have its next leg of support — a slew of traveling medical personnel contracted to work for the hospital on a short-term basis.