"We, as a nation, failed our kids": The gruesome educational consequences of the pandemic

Author Anya Kamenetz talks about educating our children through COVID in her new book, "The Stolen Year"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 4, 2022 7:29PM (EDT)

An elementary school student sits in front of a screen at home, using a laptop to participate in online classes with a teacher. (Annette Riedl/picture alliance via Getty Images)
An elementary school student sits in front of a screen at home, using a laptop to participate in online classes with a teacher. (Annette Riedl/picture alliance via Getty Images)

You don't have to try hard at all, if you are a parent, educator, or student, to remember just how confusing and scary and depressing and suffocating that first year of the pandemic was. You likely feel it still, in your own singular way, that time marked as much but what did not happen as what did. The graduations conducted via Zoom. The school plays and proms that never were. Now multiply that experience. Deepen it. Throw in corruption and violence and hunger and a mental health crisis and a series of haphazard policy decisions without any true plans, and you begin to get a sense of true enormity of what we endured, and what not everyone survived. 

In "The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children's Lives, and Where We Go Now," NPR education reporter and parent Anya Kamenetz doesn't content herself to merely chronicle the uniquely catastrophic educational mess of 2020 and 2021. Instead, while weaving real stories of families affected by the pandemic (including, at times, her own), she explores how a century of systemic ineptitude and indifference towards our American school systems led us to fail our children on an unprecedented scale. It is a sobering, frustrating, often heartbreaking book. It's also an essential read for anyone who lived through that time, and who wants to learn how to avoid a repeat of it in the future.

Salon spoke to Kamenetz recently about the disaster we all should have seen coming; the lessons from other nations did right; and why, in spite of our still awful educational circumstances, there's room to hope for "post-traumatic growth." 

This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

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I can't imagine what it was like to have to tell these stories as they were being played out. Knowing when to begin and end the tale is tricky, I imagine. It must have been hard to stop writing.

Yes. It was hard to stop writing. No one knew how long this pandemic was going to last.

You have been in this field a while. You say very clearly from the beginning that a lot of this did not come as a surprise. We were set up in many ways to have exactly the sorts of disasters that play out. When you first started seeing the signs in March of 2020, what did you think was going to happen?

It's so hard to put ourselves back in that mindset, because it was such a discontinuity. Everything is different between the before and the after. It's interesting. Specifically in New York City, de Blasio has this way of not making decisions until he absolutely was forced to and the writing was on the wall. For me, I knew he was going to close the schools eventually. As it was happening all over the country, I knew that the school closures were going to last longer than two weeks. I thought they'd last for months. What I didn't think people really had time for, or they didn't take the time to understand, is that it would have consequences.

One of the people I talked to early on is an education researcher at MIT, who used to work at a volunteer emergency rescue team, getting people out of the woods. He said that when you have a missing person, you have a golden hour and a golden 24 hours. You have to work really, really fast. You're out there. You're combing the woods. You're doing absolutely everything you can. You've got the helicopters, you've got the dogs — but you always keep a couple of your smartest guys in a church basement. Their job is to plan the next 24 hours, because people on the ground are responding to immediate circumstances. You have to have people. You have to reserve energy to look ahead beyond that. That's exactly what I feel we didn't do.

What did other parts of the world do better than we did?

What I came to conclude is, they centered children in their decision-making in a way that we didn't. That came from all parts of culture and society and institutions that we just didn't have. They already had an infrastructure for things like a child tax credit, giving money to support some families. They knew who those families were, so it was a trivial thing to do to extend that support. Just making people feel like there's an all-out society effort to surround you.

Germany had a hotline set up that said, "If you are at home and you're stressed out and you're at the end of your rope, please call this number. Don't yell at your kids. We know that people are very frustrated. We are here to support you." That's incredibly moving to me, because I know so many parents were in that situation.

Including you. You talk about how you were in that situation.

Every parent was at the end of their rope for part of it. Every parent probably had a time when they lost their s**t with their kids. Just the idea that as a society, we're going to help people deal with that is novel.

I'm using European countries as an example. Obviously, there was a range of issues around the world. The best thing we could have done for children is to limit the damage of the disease, right? Countries like the Vietnam, countries like Japan, countries like New Zealand, they reopened their schools with no drama, because they didn't have cases. That wasn't a problem. The countries like us, that were grappling wave after wave of infection, still did better for their kids — UK, Italy, Spain, France, Germany — because they prioritized children. In the fall waves, they were very clear about reopening. They had centralized messaging, which we don't have, because we have a decentralized system.

Also, we had actively anti-science messaging from the federal government. There was no coherent messaging. Those countries had the benefit of a centralized public school systems. Generally, across the European continent, they said what the rules were going to be. They opened. They followed the rules. They were able to communicate, when outbreaks happened.

Then when cases went back up, they did another astonishing thing. They closed other non-essential gathering places. They closed restaurants. They closed bars. In Germany, they closed legal brothels and kept schools open. That is a thing that we fail to do.

New Orleans actually is a strange exception, being a blue city within a red state and having this almost all charter school system. I had someone contact me and say, "We actually did manage to open our schools, where our restaurants and bars were still closed." That is one exception to that [inaudible] the rule. But by far across the country, there were states where everything was open. Then there were states where they gradually reopened things for commercial reasons, but they kept schools closed.

In the book, you say, care doesn't have good publicists. That's a big part of it too. This is also historical. This is systemic. Everything that went wrong is baked into the system here, going back well over a century. As a writer, how did you create that narrative, that if you want to understand what happened from 2020 to now, you also need to understand this part of our history in America and our education system?

There are eight ways to answer the question of why we as a nation failed our kids the way that we did. For me, this was really me following my own curiosity. There are so many systemic and historic reasons that these things happen the way that they did. Particularly too, as we went through that year with George Floyd's murder happening in May and the huge uprising that occurred with that, that was also a time of reckoning. I was probably influenced by the cultural mood of people. This isn't just about this one incident. This is about hundreds of years of history.

I also think, it helps give perspective to think about, you can say school lunches are the second largest federal food program, but why? Why do we choose to use schools as a means of feeding children? Why are there 30 million children that are hungry? These are the questions that I feel you need history to understand the reasons.

I remember early on in the pandemic seeing these stories that were our kids are going to "fall behind." Our kids weren't going to be competitive. I don't necessarily care about my kids' SATs, that's the lowest priority. You talk about in the book so much more basic stuff like food, safety, health. Things that are way, way, way more on the edge of survival. What do you think we got wrong as members of the press? What were we not looking at? What were we not seeing in front of us?

The way that media covers education is tilted toward the interests of people who are trying to get their kids into competitive colleges, just straight up. It's a very consumerist tilt. There was a guy on Twitter the other day who did a really great takedown for the percentage of all stories that mentioned colleges in the New York Times, that mention Harvard. It's like 25%. It's just incredibly skewed. It's a reflection of how our society has turned education into a demolition derby, using the veneer of meritocracy to lift up education as a positional good. That allows us to launder our privilege and say, because we got our kids into this good college, that means that they're smart, good people. They deserve everything that they have by virtue of their hereditary privilege. That's the game and media reflects that.

Media reproduces it, because it's staffed by people who went to the Ivy League like me. They go into unpaid internships. Then that's their worldview, so it's reproduced in that way. That's starting to change. I think. At the local level, the coverage was different. As an NPR education reporter, we have a wonderful network of local reporters that we try to support, elevate their work and partner with them. A lot of people were doing great reporting on the ground about the kids that it was really affecting. Far too many kids that were being affected for basic needs.

"You can't have a functioning economy if you don't have a functioning childcare system. "

Most outlets have a food and restaurant beat. They turned out story after story about what was happening to restaurants from a labor perspective, from an economic perspective. We don't have that for childcare, even though childcare is a massive sector. Unlike restaurants, the rest of the economy depends on childcare. You can't have a functioning economy if you don't have a functioning childcare system. Yet, we allowed our childcare system to collapse during the pandemic. We didn't give them federal aid. The employment in that sector is still down, which is crazy. The demand is up, but they don't have the money to pay people competitive wages. You can literally make more money at Walmart or Chipotle than you can taking care of children in their most delicate stages of development.

You can't isolate education. You can't just talk about schools without also talking about the caring economy, without talking about the healthcare system, without talking about the patriarchy, without talking about all of those other things about the labor force in general and how this is affecting everything. You can't just separate it and say, "We'll close the schools and see what happens."

But early on in the pandemic, I also know as a parent, as a caretaker, as a daughter, there was this terrible fear that if we gather, we're all going to die. At what point did the story change? At what point should we have been able to look at it and say, "This is now what we should be doing educationally"? It feels like it's still a problem.

"The pandemic was a social virus that ripped through the heart of what we are as humans. "

It's really complex. I remember in January of 2020, talking to friends who had family in China about what was happening there. Thinking, "We'll never do that. Our society's too chaotic. There's too many guns. People don't listen. We like our freedom too much." I was right in the sense that reaction to lockdowns was very mixed and very intense in some places. The pandemic was a social virus that ripped through the heart of what we are as humans, which is we try to take care of each other. We need to be together. It was incredibly destructive for that reason. Knowing that as a government, you only have so much power to confine people and to create these lockdown situations. Even in China, it's only temporary.

The question was, how much force do you try to use? Where do you apply that force? One of the early-on essays in the pandemic was "The Hammer and the Dance." You can use maximum force, but only for a limited period of time. Or you can try to do these other measures. I think we failed in all of those things.

Let's talk about children specifically. Let's talk about care specifically. Hospitals, nursing homes, childcare centers, and schools, did we close hospitals? Absolutely not. The question was, how do we keep them open safely? Nobody ever contemplated closing a hospital. Did you close a nursing home? No, you did not close a nursing home. There's no question. We did not do a good job of keeping them open safely. We cut people off from their loved ones. It was a terrible situation in nursing homes. But closing them was never something that we contemplated doing.

Childcare centers, some of them closed and some of them didn't. Many stayed open, because they served the children of essential workers. Many stayed open, because they were in survival mode. They had people who were coming to them. They needed to make money too. That was a chaotic non-decision that didn't promote public safety, because there wasn't any centralized authority to help them follow self-help and safety protocols or figure out how to keep social distancing. None of that happened in the childcare sector. In fact when schools closed, kids went to those childcare centers, so it was not handled in any way. Why did we treat schools so differently from these other institutions of care, is my question?

My answer would be, because the expectation was that the moms would do it. The Occam's razor answer is, we can close schools because of moms.

I think that's fair. Really, it's that simple. It's based on this outdated and incomplete picture of who children are and where they're growing up.

You end the book on a more proactive note. You also say, we could have been called to change the American experiment. We didn't do that. Beyond that, what do you think now, as someone who writes on this, reports on this, observes it?

First of all, we're doing really badly. Our fundamental rights are being taken away. Our democracy is at stake. Our economy is about to crash. We wrote an entire social contract. A bill was presented in Congress that had all of the components that other civilized countries have to support families and children. We did not pass that bill. We gave parents monthly checks for exactly nine months, to cut poverty. Then we took them away before people could even know to depend on them or appreciate them, so we have failed. But the optimism at the end of my book is earned from the conversations , I had with the mothers and the families that I followed and got to know really well during the course of this. Because they are driven to make sense of their experience. To integrate it and to move forward based on that. That's what I want to honor.

I talk about the concept of post-traumatic growth, which I really love. It is not denying what happened. It's not saying we're just moving on. It's saying, because of what happened, I am better at this and this, so I have grown from this. You can think of it as a tree. A tree assumes a certain shape, because of the conditions it grows under. If it grows on a cliff, it twists and turns. If it grows all by itself in a field, it gets big and round. If it grows tightly with other trees, it goes really high. We grow in the ways that we grow, because of what we have to face up to.

What I find incontrovertible is that there is much more of a conversation about being authentic, about especially children, about their mental health needs, removing the stigma of talking about mental health. Being able to show up. People being able to show up and be themselves in school and in work and in other settings. There's investments in mental health that are going out now that are real. That's a really bright spot that I see.

There's something more fundamental. The reason I like writing about kids is that kids are growing. They're on a growth trajectory. They are making sense of what happens to them. They are so full of potential. Every little alteration that you make has these huge impacts down the road. I think that's why people get so excited about children and helping them thrive. That's why I do.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Anya Kamenetz Covid-19 Education Interview The Stolen Year