New York Times: With Schools Closed, Bringing Books to Students in Need

This story originally ran in the New York Times on April 23, 2020

Remote learning is particularly challenging for low-income children. The nonprofit First Book is aiming to keep them on track.

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Tamara Ortiz of Win at a Brooklyn shelter where books were organized for distribution to children this week.Credit…Stephen Speranza for The New York Times

By Sara Aridi
April 23, 2020

Like many students who have shifted to remote learning, Leslie Novoa’s three children are jumping on Zoom calls and missing their classmates.

“We try to keep them entertained as much as possible,” Ms. Novoa said. “They want to go back to school more than anything.”

Ms. Novoa and her family live in a shelter in Brooklyn run by the nonprofit organization Win, a major provider of shelter for homeless families in New York. On Tuesday, her little ones heard some good news: Win was distributing free books to the children in the facility.

“They were excited,” Ms. Novoa said. Her two oldest children love reading, and her toddler often grabs books and pretends to read, though she’s not quite there yet.

The books came from First Book, a nonprofit that provides free and inexpensive books and learning materials to children in need. To help organizations like First Book as they assist some of those most impacted by the coronavirus, The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund has started a Covid-19 Relief Campaign. This monthlong campaign will benefit First Book and three other agencies offering support to those affected by the outbreak.

Ms. Novoa’s eldest daughter, who is 7, chose the picture book “Drawn Together.” Her 5-year-old son picked a book about the Marvel character Black Panther. And her youngest, a daughter who is 3, chose one with shapes and Disney characters on the cover.

First Book has about 475,000 members in its network, including schools in low-income communities, early childhood programs and libraries. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, many of the organization’s members said they needed books to send home to their students to help prevent them from falling behind.

It’s common for children to forget lessons when school is out, usually called “summer slide.” In places where schools will now stay closed for the rest of the academic year, low-income students are facing the prospect of a severe “summer slide,” said Kyle Zimmer, the president and chief executive of First Book, partly because they don’t have computers at home to keep them up to speed and won’t be able to reach libraries.

 “What is challenging for people of means is a crisis for people who don’t have those resources,” Ms. Zimmer said.

In an effort to keep children engaged, First Book hopes to distribute about eight million free books — all of which have been donated by publishers — to its network of educators. It has already sent out about 1.7 million books to distribution hubs such as emergency feeding sites and homeless shelters.

After New York City’s public schools began remote learning in March, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, wondered how Win was addressing the digital divide, as most of the city’s shelters do not have Wi-Fi access.

“It’s been a real struggle,” said Christine C. Quinn, the president and chief executive of Win.

Christine C. Quinn, left, the president and chief executive of Win, with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, before books were distributed at a Brooklyn shelter. Credit…Stephen Speranza for the New York Times

The Department of Education announced it would send devices with built-in internet to students in transitional housing. But the students in Win’s shelters did not receive them until more than a week after remote learning had started, Ms. Quinn said.

“The crisis has just exasperated and exposed every inequality” in the country, Ms. Weingarten said.

To help ensure homeless students continue learning, the American Federation of Teachers offered to buy more than 10,000 books and other materials, like pencils and bookmarks, from First Book and distribute them to about 2,500 children in Win’s shelters. The books, which First Book provides at a discount, will help keep the students’ reading skills up to par, and will also help ease anxiety during the lockdown, Ms. Quinn said.

“If anybody has cabin fever, it’s our children,” she added. “This is going to make a big difference.”

The need for books is widespread.

Katy Burkett teaches the first grade at Wa He Lut Indian School in Olympia, Wash., a public school that serves Native American students. Most of them live in poverty, and many don’t have food at home, let alone educational supplies, Ms. Burkett said.

The school shut down in March and will remain closed for the rest of the academic year.

A plan to send laptops and portable hot spots to students is in the works. In the meantime, the school’s staff members have been delivering paper packets to students’ homes. But Ms. Burkett sees a grave threat to her students’ education.

“They’re going to need access to technology, to books, to basic resources like pencils, paper, erasers, crayons,” Ms. Burkett said. “Every parent that I’ve talked to is concerned.”

First Book was able to relieve some of that burden. The organization gave the school $750, enough to purchase class sets of books for its roughly 130 students. Ms. Burkett said they always look forward to having books of their own.

“Anytime I give the students books, they freak out,” she said. “You’d think that they were getting toys.”

Before the donation came in, Ms. Burkett had purchased books from the organization to send to her students’ younger siblings who are missing out on early learning programs. She did not want them to go without an education, she said, so she paid for the books out of her own pocket.

Ms. Burkett is one of scores of teachers who have been stepping up during school closures.

Jennifer Walker is a media specialist at Ingleside Elementary in Athens, Tenn., which has a poverty rate of nearly 30 percent. Many of the school’s students don’t have devices at home conducive to virtual learning, Ms. Walker said. So she and others in her community have collected and distributed about 2,500 books to more than 1,000 children in the school district.

“The kids loved it,” she said. “It’s really made them smile.”

A few weeks ago, Ms. Walker reached out to First Book for help and was also given $750. She bought about 1,400 reduced-price books from the organization, mainly titles she knows the students will enjoy, like graphic novels and tales about superheros.

Remote learning means children are missing out on the daily connections they form with their teachers, Ms. Walker said. Handing out books is an opportunity for educators to show their students they still care for them.

Ms. Zimmer echoed that notion.

While First Book can’t distribute teachers, she said, “we can distribute that comfort, that little bit of support.”

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