San Jose libraries halt plans for in-person programs amid COVID surge
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Local and regional libraries are halting plans to resume popular in-person programs amid rising COVID-19 infections in Santa Clara County.

San Jose libraries hosted programs like the weekly children’s story time, language classes and mock citizenship naturalization interviews in person prior to the pandemic. Things went online in March 2020, and the city planned to slowly bring some in-person programming back this month, city library Director Jill Bourne said. But as the number of COVID cases skyrocketed over the holiday season—with the seven-day rolling average of new COVID infections in the county jumping from 657 on Dec. 24 to 4,851 as of Tuesday—officials are pumping the brakes.

The Santa Clara County Library System, however, is gearing up to extend hours—from opening six days to seven days a week—at seven of eight branches across the South Bay next week. The Campbell location will still operate six days a week. But the county’s libraries are also not ready to bring patrons back for in-person classes and programming. The county libraries also plan to pause the reopening of community rooms.

“I wish I had an answer to when we would bring programs back in person,” Diane Roche, a county spokesperson, told San José Spotlight. “We’re following the county’s health order, and our first priority is protecting our staff and patrons.”

In-person programs at local and regional libraries came to a halt when the pandemic hit the South Bay in March 2020. At the time, library workers pivoted to help with the region’s COVID response, providing WiFi hotspots to students, assisting with senior food distribution and running blood drives in partnership with Stanford Blood Center.

Most programs ended up online to prevent COVID spread, and some moved outdoors depending on capacity, city and county officials said.

Last summer, residents rejoiced as libraries across Silicon Valley began bringing back some in-person services—such as computer, internet, printing and copying services and book browsing. Those services will continue amid the omicron surge, while online and outdoor programs won’t come back soon.

“We were talking about starting (the class) back up again,” Peter Carey, who volunteered to teach citizenship classes at the Dr. Roberto Cruz Alum Rock Branch Library prior to the pandemic, told San José Spotlight. “But omicron really screwed it up.”

San Jose libraries also have struggled to maintain staffing levels during the COVID infection surge, said library assistant and union representative Benjamin Martinez. With omicron ravaging the region, many workers have called in sick or reported exposure, sending their colleagues scrambling to find substitutes.

“From what I heard from the librarians, it’s been a relief to put things on hold,” Martinez told San José Spotlight. “With so many unknown things about this variant, it’s already stressful enough for them.”

San Jose State University student Naveena Sura enjoys having in-person classes at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library this year. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Safety comes first

San Jose State University student Naveena Sura, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in computer engineering, goes to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library two to three times a week for her classes and to study.

“I’m glad it’s open now for my classes because in-person (sessions) are much more interesting and interactive,” Sura said, adding she hopes the writing center will resume in person soon. “I have only used it once, and it would be much easier to be able to walk in for help.”

Longtime San Jose resident Thoa Tran said she missed her daily visit to the downtown library the first year of the pandemic. With some in-person services back, Tran now spends almost every day browsing the movie selection.

“I was so happy when they opened back up,” Tran told San José Spotlight in Vietnamese. “We get bored in the house, and these visits are among the few things I could still do.”

Tran used to utilize some library programs, but as those moved online in 2020, she has a hard time following them with limited technology skills.

Thoa Tran goes to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library every day to borrow movies, but she couldn’t keep up with programs when they moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Sara Tuvba shared the same sentiment about online programs. While many families still tune in to the popular weekly story time via Zoom, she said it doesn’t have the same benefits for her 5-year-old daughter, Zeynep.

“Before the pandemic, that was a place for her to socialize,” Tuvba said. “She’s very shy, but whenever we were at a story time session, she would start playing and talking to other kids. Online doesn’t allow that.”

Her family doesn’t mind waiting for a few more months until the new variant wanes.

“I understand why they’re doing it,” Tuvba told San José Spotlight. “It would be risky now and I don’t think I would bring her to one even if they (bring) it back now.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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