Two of the Loudoun library’s busiest branches will be closed back down to make space for childcare facilities for school employees following an email vote by county supervisors.
Beginning today, the Ashburn and Rust branches of the Loudoun County Public Library system are again offering only contactless curbside pickup service. This is the same service the library offered as it first came out of the shutdown to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, with similar precautions such as quarantining returned library materials for four days, to let any virus that may have contaminated them die off, before putting them back into circulation.
That’s being done so that the county government can use space in those libraries to provide childcare to government and school system employees.
But the news that those libraries would be closing to the general public once more came as a surprise to library staff members and the library Board of Trustees, who, like the rest of the public, were informed only after supervisors had already made that decision over email.
Board of Trustees Chairman Denis Cotter said he first heard about it when Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) called to tell him the decision had been made. That set library trustees and library staff members scrambling to adapt.
“The curbside service was not going to be part of it at all, it was a maybe, so there might have been no services of any kind from Rust or Ashburn,” Cotter said. “Because it wasn’t clear whether curbside service could be provided if the building had been taken over for childcare.”
That could have not only shut down those branches, but frozen a chunk of the library’s floating collection in place until the libraries were reopened and closed the outreach work centralized at the Rust Library, such as providing materials to senior citizens.
Library Executive Director Chang Liu, after hearing about the decision from Cotter, met with county staff members to figure out how to make that work.
“I felt strongly that we wanted to—if possible, if there’s space—that we’d like to continue offering some kind of library service, and that’s why we settled on the curbside service,” Liu said.
She walked through the facilities with the Parks and Recreation staff, the county department that will run the childcare facilities, to figure out how to make that work.
“We wanted to make sure there is clear separation between the childcare operations and the library operations,” Liu said.
But Randall said Cotter was informed only shortly after county supervisors heard about the idea from county staff members.
“We were trying to find locations so that we didn’t have to lease any locations, and so we’re trying to use as many county locations as possible without leasing locations,” Randall said. “Because leasing, one, is taxpayer money, and two, we’re not sure when the kids will be able to go back to school, and all the leases we saw were 10 month leases.”
And with some of what supervisors have heard since the straw poll vote, she said, that unanimous vote might not be reflected in the official vote Tuesday, Sept. 1. For instance, she said, at that time not all supervisors were aware that there would be some exceptions made to allow students to get in-person instruction.
And, she said, everyone benefits when public servants have access to childcare.
“It’s not like we’re benefiting only the kids and their families,” Randall said. “Every single person in the county benefits when a sheriff’s deputy or firefighter knows that their kids are off in safe childcare, which I think is a very important point.”
Offering that same service to all families in Loudoun, she said, is unfortunately not feasible with tens of thousands of school-aged children in the county.
Other impacts remain, nonetheless.
“One of the biggest impacts is the use of the public computers,” Cotter said. “…There are people who do not have internet at home. They don’t have computers. They rely on the ability—and some of this is even for their children—to use the public library for computer access. So that’s gone.”
In addition, it would have meant putting 52 staff members back on administrative leave, he said.
In a letter to supervisors, Cotter wrote, “keeping the libraries open makes us all better. With the libraries open, we are building—and sustaining—the beloved community.”
“Thank you for all your support of Loudoun County Public Library,” Cotter wrote. “Please, please, direct the County Administration and County Departments to continue working with library administration and staff to support all library patrons. And please, please, keep us involved—don’t blindside us. We are all on the same page, we are all in this together.”
While the Board of Supervisors provides much of the funding for the library, the Board of Trustees is tasked with governing the library’s budget and operations, and hires the executive director.
The vote to close the libraries not taken publicly—supervisors decided to close the libraries with an informal straw poll, over email. A formal ratification of that vote is expected as part of a package of votes on CARES Act funding during Tuesday’s board meeting.
It also not the first time supervisors have made a controversial public policy decision without a public meeting. In May, Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) conducted an email straw poll of supervisors asking to delay entering the first phase of reopening; six of nine supervisors voted to support the delay. The public found out about the decision afterward, when a letter went to the governor asking him to delay reopening for Northern Virginia.
Before supervisors began their customary August recess, Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) expressed some concern about giving county staff members guidance while off the dais with straw poll votes, specifically about guiding lobbying in the General Assembly. Other supervisors voted to do so.
“The other option is, we can just take no break,” Randall said at that meeting. “I don’t think so.”
The current board’s record on transparency is less than spotless—supervisors also passed new rules of order early in their term raising the possibility of censuring supervisors who talk publicly about what happens in closed session. Almost all exceptions to transparency law are voluntary, and there is no law prohibiting speaking about what happened in closed session. Supervisors are otherwise taken their word that they stuck to legally-allowed topics behind closed doors—no publicly-available records are kept of those meetings.
To check out materials from those libraries, customers are encouraged to place holds through the online catalog at catalog.library.loudoun.gov or call the Ashburn (703-737-8100) or Rust (703-777-0323) libraries for assistance. Customers will be contacted through their choice of email, text or phone call when their items are ready to be picked up.
This article was updated Monday, Aug. 31 at 5:01 p.m. with comment from Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).