A million US children did not enroll in school last year. Libraries are helping kids catch up
Published: September 24, 2021
Now that kids are newly back at their school desks, public libraries are playing an outsized role in making up for the learning gaps created by missing in-person school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies show that a million American schoolchildren did not enroll in school at all in the 2020-21 school year, so this year, learning gaps are especially urgent and deep.
The latest federal data available show that even before the pandemic began, 66 percent of 4th graders scored below proficient on literacy tests. Public libraries are providing services to students this fall to improve literacy and advance equity, as educators and librarians continue to respond to the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic.
Public libraries can help. For decades, public libraries have filled learning gaps by:
- Offering reading and learning enrichment programs have proven to close learning gaps. One study showed that groups of children from the Philadelphia area were monitored for achievement differences between those enrolled in a public library summer reading program and those in a local recreation program. The study demonstrated a positive correlation in reading scores for those children who attended the library summer reading program.
- Supporting digital literacy. The “homework gap”—especially experienced by the roughly 8–12 million K–12 students who lack broadband access at home—is part of a larger learning gap. Libraries provide free broadband access to those who lack it at home.
- Providing access to crucial resources for learning and growth. A new survey by ALA shows that more than half of public libraries report circulating technology (e.g., hotspots, laptops, and tablets) for patron use off-site, bridging gaps in access to technology. A similar percentage provided streaming public programs in the previous 12 months, as well as diverse digital content, resources, and training.
However, library facilities are falling behind – or falling apart
At the same time, a new analysis by the American Library Association (ALA) shows that America’s approximately 17,000 public libraries, which received 1.3 billion visits each year, need at least $32 billion to continue operating sustainably and without disruption. Congress has a historic opportunity to ensure libraries are there to meet the needs of their youngest constituents now and for generations to come.