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These articles were excerpted from Tapestry, a weekly newsletter that examines the arts and entertainment world in Charlotte and North Carolina.

How The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Is Helping Students With Virtual Learning

University City Library
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
Students work on schoolwork outside the University City Regional Library -- with the help of the library's free Wi-Fi.

At the University City Regional Library, the Wi-Fi signal has been boosted to its maximum capacity so that it can cover as much of the parking lot as possible. It’s still not as powerful as Charlotte Mecklenburg Library would like, but it’s the best that can be done for now.

Since Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools started up this fall with remote classes because of the coronavirus, the areas outside the University City branch and several others have been crowded with children trying to utilize one of every community’s most valuable resources: free Wi-Fi at the library.

For many, it’s the only access they have to connect for virtual school.

CM Library Phase 2

Since Sept. 30, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library has been in Phase 2 of its reopening plan, which allows for in-person browsing. But there is still no leisure seating inside branches, and visitors are encouraged to spend no more than 10-20 minutes inside.

That means that some branches still have clusters of kids outside and in the parking lot logging onto the Wi-Fi for virtual learning, and library director Caitlin Moen is trying to do what she can to partner with CMS and help kids who are most in need.

“What we've really realized is that if schools aren't able to open safely with all of the resources that they have, there's really no way for us to fill that gap in a real consistent and safe way,” Moen said. “But what we can do is look for ways that we can contribute.”

Libraries have Wi-Fi turned on 24 hours, and there’s a hotspot lending program, but Moen admits “it's just a drop in the bucket compared with the critical need.”

In two main areas, though, the library is taking steps to provide help in new ways.

Partnering with CMS, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library has become a technical support service, of sorts, for any of the new digital tools that the schools are using during remote learning.

“And so we actually had CMS train some of our staff on some of the software that they're using so that our staff can support folks outside of school hours,” Moen said.

And realizing how vital social interaction is during a time when many are isolated because of remote learning amid the pandemic, the library has expanded its tutoring sessions and provided opportunities for virtual gatherings.

It’s all still online, of course, but it’s something.

CM Library Staff
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

“That social-emotional support (is) something that we found to be very critical right now,” Moen said. “So we've really expanded our person-to-person interactions in terms of one-on-one tutoring sessions and online reading buddies to give that kind of social learning aspect.”

Virtual reading buddies and one-on-one tutoring have been scheduled hourly from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. each weekday recently, in fact.

The library also has tried to provide virtual gatherings in the form of parent support groups and teen gatherings, including digital gaming, a teen book club and a “Teens Live on Instagram” series covering topics ranging from Halloween reads to how to make pumpkin-spiced cider.

“We have this whole team of folks to coordinate, not just with CMS, but with all of the area schools and home schools to try to look for ways that we can continue to help support students’ success,” Moen said.

Maybe one of the best ways the library has been able to contribute to students, though, is simply by being open for visits again.

Although in-person browsing is limited in time duration, it’s still allowed for the first time in months. And express computers are available – again, for no more than 20 minutes, and at a standing desk – for quick online needs.

Face masks are still required, plexiglass has been installed to protect employees and six feet of social distancing is encouraged. Items returned also are now quarantined for four days before being recirculated, a cautious approach to try to prevent any spread of the virus through material surfaces.

Moen said library visits have doubled in the early move to Phase 2. The next phase calls for seating and full computer access, but Moen is hesitant to put a time frame on when that might occur given the fluctuating situation with COVID-19 in the community.

For now, the library is simply happy to be back to allowing some in-person customers and helping students connect – virtually and socially -- as much as possible.

“Our customers have been so happy to get back in,” she said. “We've had a lot of folks really dancing over the thresholds or jumping up and down. And so that's been really energizing to kind of experience those relationships again.”

This story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment email newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.

Jodie Valade has been a Digital News and Engagement Editor for WFAE since 2019. Since moving to Charlotte in 2015, she has worked as a digital content producer for NASCAR.com and a freelance writer for publications ranging from Charlotte magazine to The Athletic to The Washington Post and New York Times. Before that, Jodie was an award-winning sports features and enterprise reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. She also worked at The Dallas Morning News covering the Dallas Mavericks — where she became Mark Cuban's lifelong email pen pal — and at The Kansas City Star. She has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University and a Master of Education from John Carroll University. She is originally from Rochester Hills, Michigan.