From virtual storytime sessions to expanded online tutoring, Bay Area library workers have found creative new ways to keep young people engaged during the shelter in place. (Photo courtesy of Oakland Public Library)

Even — or especially — in a pandemic, kids need books and stories.  

So, when the coronavirus shut down the Bay Area, Oakland Public Library (OPL) children’s librarian Sally Engelfried quickly moved her popular new book club for fourth and fifth graders online. Response from kids in Engelfried’s 81st Avenue branch area “was so enthusiastic that Sally increased the size of the book club and had the third title shipped to all the children directly,” reported Laura Liang, Oakland librarian of children’s services.  Two more online book club meetings are scheduled in May. 

With little fanfare, Bay Area library employees have been filling key gaps in kids’ virtual learning and social connection, helping to combat children’s isolation amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

From daily virtual storytime sessions where library staff read books to kids to expanded online tutoring and greater digital access for low-income children and families, library workers have found creative new ways to keep young people engaged during the shutdown. 

“We’re really seeing kids and families rediscover our treasure trove,” of online books, videos and films, said Christy Estrovitz, manager of youth services at the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL)

Daily “Sweet Stories” readings in English, Spanish, Russian, Cantonese and Mandarin have been especially popular, with one Spanish-language storytime drawing more than 2,000 viewers, according to Estrovitz. Amid social isolation, many kids and parents are finding the video stories “a welcome ‘hello’ from your local librarian,” she said. 

Behind the scenes of “Show & Tell with SFPL,” San Francisco Public Library’s tutorial series for students. (Photo courtesy of SFPL)

When libraries closed their doors in March, SFPL established a tip line to help users access library resources, and made it “easier than ever” to get a digital library card, said Estrovitz.  

“All our books are in quarantine now,” so children and parents are ordering more electronic books, she said. “It’s so important, they want it right now. You can get Harry Potter books on overdrive right now.” 

Library workers in San Francisco and Oakland are also providing expanded online bilingual tutoring during the pandemic.  

“Parents are looking to engage their kids, and we’re trying to bridge that gap, so that kids see a familiar face at a strange time,” said Matt Berson, public information officer for OPL. 

Since April, OPL has provided students and adult learners with free access to,  providing live, one-on-one tutoring each day from noon to midnight. And to bridge the “significant digital divide here in Oakland,” OPL has also donated 500 Wi-Fi hotspots to Oakland Unified School District students, Berson said. 

As the now-virtual school year draws to a close, library workers are gearing up summer reading programs. To help bolster the annual “Summer Stride” program, San Francisco library employees are working with school librarians to curate summer reading lists, contacting local booksellers to ensure books are in stock and providing students with trackers to help them meet learning goals, Estrovitz explained. And in Oakland, a library-sponsored “share the love” program will provide free summer reading books to kids in need.