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Niles Community Schools hosts annual libraries, adapted for social distancing

NILES — The sounds of happy reunion filled the south part of the Niles High School parking lot just after 11 a.m. Tuesday. As parents drove their cars up to a “pop-up library” organized by Niles Community Schools, they gave the name of their child to the teachers, and administrators gathered, ready to disperse reading materials. As the names were given and the teachers recognized their students, they took the few minutes to catch up for the first time since classes were canceled earlier this year due to COVID-19 shutdowns.

Bins were lined up on chairs with letters from the alphabet denoting whose last name coordinated with the books in the boxes. The books themselves were packaged in ready to grab-and-go, sealed plastic bags. The teachers and administrators working the event all wore masks, even though they were outside. Viktor the Viking welcomed drivers into the parking lot.

The pop-up libraries are put on annually over the summer by the Niles Community School system. Usually a gathering event in a park, this year’s offering is a bit different to abide by social distancing guidelines amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The big difference is that the kids aren’t able to get out [of the car] and pick out their own books,” said Kelly Westgate, a special education teacher at Ballard Elementary School. “In previous years, once we identified their reading level, they would give us their name. We would find their reading level, and we would have a list of reading levels for every child. Then they were able to pick their own books.”

This year, the book choices have been made for the students. Each student from preschool to second grade will receive two books, a fiction and non-fiction book, and third through fifth graders will receive a book at their reading level.

“These books are all brand new,” Westgate said. “Any child who comes through can get a book.”

Children who are not registered in the Niles Community School system were able to obtain what the teachers are calling “blue bin books.” These books come from donations from United Way, The Teacher Store in Elkhart and from used books donated from libraries around the state of Michigan.

“It’s our goal to just get books in their hands,” Westgate said. “Research says that even just being exposed to the books, having them, manipulating the books, helps improve your reading skills. It helps with decoding, especially for younger students.”

Westgate said this was more important this year than in the past, as students had been out of the classroom since March 13.

“We have no idea where we’re going to be as far as the number of participants this year,” Westgate said. “Hopefully, after today we’ll be able to do an inventory and get a better idea.”

The midday events at Niles High School coincide with meal pickups with the United Way of Southwestern Michigan’s Meet Up and Eat Up program. The program provides anyone who shows up with a free meal.

The pop-up, drive through libraries will be hosted again at 11 a.m. to noon on July 21 and Aug. 4, at Niles High School at 1441 Eagle St. In the afternoon from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. on July 21 and Aug. 4, at Ballard Elementary School, at 1601 Chicago Road, the event will be hosted in the afternoons.

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