College students who can’t afford their own course materials and rely on library copies of textbooks are finding themselves in “an untenable situation” this fall as campus closures cut off library access and quarantines of print materials between loans take resources out of circulation.
CDC epidemiologists say that students are unlikely to catch COVID-19 from a book, but they recommend quarantining print materials for at least 24 hours between borrowers. Lindsey Gumb, assistant professor and scholarly communications librarian at Rhode Island-based Roger Williams University, told Inside Higher Ed that her library is quarantining every returned textbook for 72 hours before allowing it to be checked out again and is strongly discouraging students from sharing materials.
The extended wait times have left some Roger Williams students—who are on campus for a hybrid learning experience—scrambling to study. Gumb says she offers to help students communicate the situation to their instructors. “Students are often embarrassed to tell a faculty member they can’t afford the book,” Gumb said. “They don’t normally have to do that since they have access to one in the library.
Students across the nation are grappling with lack of access to textbooks. “The pandemic has intensified and exposed so many gaps and cracks in our society, and access to course materials is one of them,” Nicole Allen, director of open education at the open-access publishing advocacy group SPARC told Inside Higher Ed. “Students are struggling. So are faculty, and so are libraries.”
Even libraries with ample textbook collections are facing circulation challenges, especially those at institutions that are limiting access to campus. Digital access is often cost-prohibitive, and initiatives that granted students free temporary digital access to course materials in the spring have since ended.
Some schools have been turning to open educational resources or have been able to obtain access via CARES Act federal stimulus funding, but experts say that is not a long-term solution to the supply-demand imbalance.