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Unable to open its doors, the Upper Saddle River Library turns to online programming

NorthJersey.com

It’s a double challenge that many North Jersey libraries are struggling to meet: keeping patrons safe from the coronavirus while fielding new demands from people who need internet access or a quiet place to work. 

Gov. Phil Murphy allowed libraries to reopen on July 2 at 25% capacity. That has resulted in many libraries reopening the use of public computers on a strict time limit and public seating areas closed off.

Meanwhile, thousands of New Jersey schoolchildren who need computers and internet access for remote learning lack those necessities. While the exact number is uncertain — the state Department of Education’s figures have fluctuated — it’s clear that school leaders have not been able to bridge the digital divide for all students. 

John Arthur, the director of the Englewood Public Library, said his library and others in North Jersey have been reaching out to the state for additional funding to meet their needs by acquiring hot spots, for example. Hot spots are pocket-sized devices that can provide an internet connection.

“Libraries are an access point for many people,” he said. “Our goal is always to provide access,” whether it’s to a book or the internet.  

Luca Manna, the executive director of PALS Plus, a consortium of libraries located in Passaic, Essex and Hudson counties, pointed to the efforts of the Paterson Public Library, even while closed.

“What Paterson is doing to help really bridge this digital divide — which you can imagine is impacting on some communities that have a greater need than others — they eventually acquired hot spots. So they will be loaning hot spots,” Manna said. “I think they have a hundred of them and they are looking to receive funding for more.”

The Bergenfield Public Library is one of 77 libraries in the BCCLS system whose patrons not only borrow physical books, but also e-books. (Photo: Ricardo Kaulessar/NorthJersey.com)

Libraries also provide Wi-Fi networks that can be accessed by sitting in the parking lot outside the building. That assumes the patron has a laptop or device on which to work. 

The New Jersey State Library in Trenton has a map on its website that shows libraries across the state that offer free Wi-Fi after library hours, or for patrons who may not want to enter for health reasons.

As of this week, 60 of 77 libraries in the Bergen County Cooperative Library System have reopened, 28 of 38 libraries in The Morris Automated Information Network consortium are open, and eight out of 21 libraries in PALS Plus, which is mostly in Passaic County, have reopened.  

The Worth-Pinkham Memorial Library in Ho-Ho-Kus allows a mere 15 people in at a time, below the 25-person limit for the building that would meet the state’s 25% capacity level.

Gretchen Kaser Corsillo, the library’s director, said, “We felt it was safer to keep it at the 15, especially because certain areas of the library, like the children’s area, are not super spacious.”

Corsillo said patrons are allowed inside no more than an hour and can use the library’s two public computers for only 30 minutes. The library has open Wi-Fi for people to access in the library’s driveway or sitting on its porch.

“We’re really trying to balance fulfilling the needs in terms of browsing and computer access and whatnot with being as safe as possible,” Corsillo said.

It’s a far cry from pre-pandemic days, when libraries attracted crowds of students in search of tutoring sessions, homework help or a quiet place to work.

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Arthur said the Englewood Public Library is providing online classes and programs like homework help for students and English as a Second Language, and will continue to do so.

Clifton’s public libraries, which are expected to reopen in October, are still relying on virtual programming, particularly in the children’s section, said Library Director Christine Tomczak. 

The library has had difficulty getting the sneeze guards for both the public areas and staff areas, especially at the library’s main branch. 

“It has a lot of custom-sized spaces,” Tomczak said. 

But in the meantime, research librarians have also been fielding email questions from patrons, and the library is working on resuming its homework help program.

The Worth-Pinkham Memorial Library in Ho-Ho-Kus opened its doors again in July after being closed for several months. (Photo: Megan Saluga)

Chad Leinaweaver, the director of the Morristown and Morris Township Library, said the library had reached out to the Morris school district to find out if students lacked access to the internet or a computer, and is trying to acquire hot spots to help fill the gap —although that’s been a challenge, he said. He noted the school system has done a great job in providing Wi-Fi and computers to students.

Still, he thinks about a frequent patron who accesses the library Wi-Fi from the parking lot, and adult library users who rushed in as soon as the library reopened in August to use the computers and printers. 

The pandemic has put into perspective for Leinaweaver how even affluent areas like Morristown can be affected by the digital divide. 

“You think in a state like New Jersey, and in a town like Morristown, the mindset you have is everyone probably has a computer at home, and everybody probably knows how to use a computer and everybody has some level of Wi-Fi at home,” Leinaweaver said. “Well, that’s definitely not true.”

Ricardo Kaulessar is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ricardokaul 

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