By Megan Matti
Popular programs at the Seattle Public Library, such as homework help and citizenship classes, have returned after a pandemic pause.
According to Laura Gentry, the head of communications at the Seattle Public Library, all 27 branches of the library were closed for more than five months. While people could still check out electronic copies of books and attend virtual programs through the libraries’ online portals, the closures drastically impacted people’s ability to access library services, and many programs were paused, many indefinitely.
For example, storytimes at various branches are on hold but may return. However, according to Gentry, the library is almost back to pre-COVID conditions.
Most libraries are open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.. Many locations also have evening hours on weekdays. All locations are closed on major holidays.
Over the past few months, Homework Help, in-person tutoring for K-12 students, has resumed operations at six of the library’s 27 locations. Gentry says that the restrictions are tighter than pre-pandemic levels, as the library continues to be cautious in the wake of COVID-19. As of now, the capacity is limited to reduce contact, and masks are encouraged.
According to Wendy Israel, the library’s program manager for Homework Help, they have provided over 200 tutoring sessions since resuming the program on Sept. 12. The tutors are required to be vaccinated and were volunteers pre-pandemic. Tutors are chosen through a volunteer application that is typically submitted in July but prospective tutors can email the volunteer coordinator at any time.
“We’ve had a great response from parents, students, and staff,” Israel said. “They all are so happy to have this program back at the library.”
When selecting the six locations to restart Homework Help, Gentry said they took into account the historical attendance and community involvement in past iterations of the program. People are excited to have the program back, with many Homework Help sessions requiring a waitlist because of limited capacity in tutoring spaces due to COVID-19 precautions.
As of now, Homework Help is available at the Douglass-Truth, New Holly, Lake City, Columbia, High Point, and Rainier Beach branches with varying capacity limits. Each library sets its own schedule for the tutoring sessions, but generally services are held two days a week for at least one hour.
According to Nancy Garrett, the teen services librarian at the Lake City branch, the energy of the Homework Help sessions has not faded over the pandemic.
“It’s a really kind of lively, intergenerational environment where everybody’s asking questions, helping each other out and sharing their knowledge,” Garrett said.
At the Lake City location, a local nonprofit often provides snacks and meals for an hour of the Homework Help meetings each week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The Hunger Intervention Program is a local nonprofit that serves north King County and visits the Lake City branch during the Homework Help program as a part of their partnership with the Seattle Public Library.
“Yesterday, we probably had 30 students in the library getting snacks, and we had at least 25 students that signed in to get homework help or to study independently,” Garrett said.
For higher education students, the library also has an online resource called Tutor.com that assists K-12 students, as well as other people working on job applications, for example. This website is accessible for library card holders or those in the Seattle Public School system through the Library Link program and offers tutors who can help with job applications, college assignments, and other continuing-education assignments.
Another vital resource that connects communities to continuing education are the Virtual Citizenship Classes offered through the Asian Counseling and Referral Service. This service originally was offered in person at the central library, though the pandemic shifted it to online.
“During the pandemic, we moved from in person to online teaching and we were able to bring almost all of our students online during the pandemic,” said McKenna Lang, the class instructor. “It’s adult students, many of them in their 70s and 80s. So we had to teach them some pretty advanced digital literacy and it was so inspiring, watching people show up.”
Lang said that the move online was helpful to many students as it allowed them to take the class in a variety of different settings, a silver lining to the challenges of the pandemic. Lang said this was helpful for students who need to watch children or grandchildren, for example.
Julie Turner, a former in-person student in Lang’s class, concurred.
“Once we went online, I loved it because I could just be at home and go online at the appropriate times,” Turner said. “And also other people can join from a long way away.”
After taking the class in both locations, Turner has stayed on as a volunteer in the class. Turner also holds a deep love for The Seattle Public Library and said she originally found the class after spending a lot of time at the Central Library, studying for the citizenship exam.
Turner and Lang both emphasized that they found a sense of community through the citizenship classes because of the variety of students from all over the world.
Officials at the library said they use the Community Conversations program, lead by Chief Librarian Tom Fay, to engage with different neighborhoods around Seattle to better understand what people want to see from the library.
“The way the library develops and delivers programs is really the outcome of a lot of community listening, community engagement, relational work that our staff do,” Gentry said.
The pre-pandemic program “Read to Me” that enabled incarcerated parents to record stories for their children through a partnership with the King County Jail came out of these conversations.
According to officials at the library, the conversations were also helpful in determining the popularity of the Homework Help.
Even without a library card, visitors can discover local artists, listen to author readings, scan and fax, take virtual arts classes, and much more. “There are all kinds of ways to achieve goals and learn new skills,” Gentry said. “And there’s something for everybody.”
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