Pasco County elementary school teachers will get new classroom library collections in the fall.
Not that they necessarily want them.
The school district announced in a January newsletter that it would be making the $2.9 million purchase, funded by federal coronavirus relief money, in order to comply with new state laws and rules governing the books allowed in school libraries.
The law requires that all library books and assigned readings be reviewed for content appropriateness by a trained media specialist, and that they be on a list searchable by parents. The State Board of Education extended the law by rule to include classroom books.
To make the process run smoothly, the Pasco district — which removed media specialists from its schools a decade ago — decided to compile a list of approved books and deliver a set to each elementary classroom by August.
In the meantime, teachers may keep in place the books they have for students to read.
“We have not asked them to turn their bookshelves around,” said Lea Mitchell, the district’s Office of Leading and Learning director.
Mitchell referred to other districts in the state, including Manatee and Duval counties, that instructed teachers to prevent children from accessing classroom libraries until the titles can be vetted for content considered “pornography” or otherwise harmful to children. A state video encouraged educators to remove items they would feel uncomfortable reading aloud in public, and to “err on the side of caution.”
Critics have seen this effort as an attack on books that address race and gender, which lawmakers restricted for instruction but did not include in their measures on self-selected library books. Education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. and other Republican officials have said the schools are overreacting to efforts aimed at keeping age-inappropriate materials out of schools.
Mitchell noted that the latest state rule and training were approved Jan. 18, and suggested it would be unfair to require sweeping changes immediately.
Parents may challenge individual books through a formal process, Mitchell said. But “eliminating all of the books at this time is not in the best interest of students,” she said, adding, “I trust our teachers.”
News of the district’s plan rocked some on the teaching staff.
In an online chat group, one wrote of having a panic attack. Another wondered how the district would adequately replace the hundreds of books she had collected over decades.
Deer Park Elementary third-grade teacher Magen Wilson said she cried upon learning the direction the state law is sending the district.
“Books are incredibly powerful and empowering. They are a safe space to learn about uncomfortable things and provide a safe escape for people of all ages,” Wilson told the Tampa Bay Times via email. “I feel like children are now being robbed of those needed experiences.”
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She said throughout her 14 years teaching, she’s put together a set of books in which her students can find themselves, so they can feel the literature includes them. Creating a cookie-cutter selection doesn’t allow for the variety of situations that teachers see, she said.
“I’m also worried about this situation continuing the narrative that educators can’t be trusted,” Wilson added. “We put a lot of thought and care into choosing books for our students. My library changes every year based on the make-up of the class that I have. Educators are professionals and we need to be treated as such.”
Mitchell said the district does not want to take away teachers’ ability to choose books for their classrooms, even as it works to comply with the state rules.
Teachers may add to the district-provided collections any titles that appear in the district’s overall database of approved books, Mitchell said. They will be able to submit others to the district media specialists for review and addition to the database.
A group of parents, students and teachers is being put together to help determine which books meet academic needs and interest levels. The district also is working with the University of South Florida to expedite any reviews.
“We do want to honor the rule,” Mitchell said. “We are trying to view this as an opportunity to think about how to use this and make it a positive situation.”
She stressed that the district has no intent to allow a single parent complaint to cause the immediate removal of any book, as happened recently when Pinellas County banned Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” at all high schools. Pasco requires that complainants file a written challenge and go through a process that considers the needs of all children.
At the same time, the district has removed access to the Pasco County public library system through students’ online district portal. It did so after hearing parents detail how children could access adult-oriented materials through the system.
“Parents can easily arrange online and in-person access to Pasco County Libraries by establishing a Virtual Library Card through the County’s library system,” the district said in a message to families. “As always, we urge parents to remain involved in their student’s education and to maintain an awareness of what they’re reading.”
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