Review by Hannah Natanson Washington Post Sep 4th 2022
We have all heard, by this point, that school closures during the first year of the pandemic damaged children. We have heard that children slid behind where they should be academically, with the most vulnerable slipping fastest; that many children with disabilities did not learn anything at all and began regressing; that the nation’s youngest citizens spent years feeling upset, angry, sad, frustrated and oh so alone.
But many Americans didn’t actually see it — apart from, for some, the effects on their own families. We didn’t see moments like these:
A 7-year old Black boy in St. Louis, unable to access a working computer at home, starts skipping remote school in May 2020. Instead, he dons his red school uniform polo and heads to a Family Dollar store, where he pretends to be an employee, holding doors and carrying bags. He uses his tips to pay for meals.
In New Jersey, a kindergartner is missing his school friends so much by the end of the 2019-2020 school year that he stops eating. His parents tell him he cannot leave the table until he finishes his food, and things seem to improve — but then his mother, suspicious of the boy’s ever-thinner cheeks, goes through the trash and discovers he has been secretly spitting his small bites of waffles, sandwiches and broccoli into napkins.
“He was, like, just lying in his bed,” the boy’s mother recounted later. “My baby. Saying he would just rather die, over and over and over again.”
These and other painful snapshots of how America failed its schoolchildren are captured in Anya Kamenetz’s thoroughly researched, unsparing and intimately detailed new book, “The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now.”
As kids head back to school in this third year of the pandemic, Kamenetz has given us an essential read for anyone who wants to understand how American schools and schoolchildren fared in the early days.The book also investigates the historical factors, blatant inattention, and racist and sexist world that had shaped America’s public school and child-care systems into what they were by the time the virus began closing schools across the country in March 2020. Kamenetz documents how America has long failed to invest in its schools, leaving some lacking basics such as soap, paper towels and running water when the virus arrived; how the nation’s refusal to invest in child care or offer paid family leave created a teetering, unequal system that crashed, flattening many mothers, when schools shuttered; and how the structure of special education, designed to pit parents against school systems, forged an even more bitter relationship between families and districts at the height of the pandemic, when mutual support and understanding were needed most.
“It is entirely possible that when all is said and done, districts and states end up spending more money fighting families in court over COVID-related denial of services, and on paying families’ legal fees when they lose, than they spend on the services themselves,” Kamenetz writes. “Meanwhile, months become years and children grow up.”
She analyzes how America performed compared with peer nations, noting that we kept schools closed longer than many parts of the Asia Pacific did and that, unlike Europe, Britain and Israel, we prioritized reopening other institutions — bars, restaurants, businesses — ahead of the places where the next generation is supposed to go to learn.
She also offers thought-provoking, clear-eyed insights into the way systems and people functioned, and did not function, during the pandemic. For example, she asks us to think of the virus’s effects on children “as being like the climate crisis. More heat stress, more energy going into the atmosphere raises the likelihood and the intensity of individual disasters like wildfires and floods. … In the same way, [the pandemic] raised the background conditions that made ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] more numerous and more severe, especially for children who are already vulnerable.”
She breaks the fourth wall to make another salient point: “More than nine out of ten of the researchers, advocates and other experts I talked to for this book were women. Because that’s who tends to study children. And a great number of those women were raising children themselves. At the time when the country needed voices like [theirs] the most, their capacity was limited by the same catastrophe that was affecting everyone else.”
To her credit, Kamenetz has no desire to play the blame game. Rather than deploy a favorite argument of the right — that left-leaning parents, school officials and teachers’ unions were responsible for school closures — or entertain progressives’ assertions that virus-denying, Trump-supporting proponents of school reopening did not care much whether teachers lived or died, Kamenetz takes a more balanced view.
“These decisions shouldn’t have been left up to districts in the first place,” she writes. “They were mired in political battles. They had little relevant expertise to judge incomplete and emerging evidence.”
Still, the book is at times confusing, leaping backward and forward in time despite its ostensible division into sections labeled “Spring 2020,” “Summer 2020” and so on. The plethora of expert, parent and student voices from across the country can be overwhelming — and sometimes I wished for more direct quotes and thoughts from the children she interviewed, rather than summaries of their parents’ perspectives.
There is a slight overemphasis on history for a book that Kamenetz promises, in the introduction, will tell “the story of 2020 and 2021 in the words of children and teenagers from around the country.” Occasionally, the book also suffers from clumsy writing — for example, a triply mixed metaphor in which Kamenetz declares that the “politics of childcare” is a “field … crisscrossed with bright lines and third rails, like one of those laser mazes in a heist movie.” Elsewhere, she jarringly interjects, in mockery of a senator’s statement, “Hahahaha that’s a sweet thought, guy.”
The book is at its best when Kamenetz’s human reporting is allowed to dominate the page. These moments will stick with me most:
The teacher in Brooklyn who realized the school system wasn’t fulfilling its promise of deep cleaning when she drew in pencil on a desktop, then arrived the next morning to discover it hadn’t been wiped away overnight.
The 11-year-old autistic, dyslexic boy in San Francisco who, frustrated by his inability to learn on Zoom, begged of his parents: “I want to die. I wish I could kill myself. I want you to kill me!”
The teenager on an Oklahoma reservation who lost his scholarship when his grades slipped during online learning — rendering him unable to accept the offered spot at his dream school, Oklahoma State. When the teen’s mother and Kamenetz showed up at the Sonic restaurant where he worked, he refused to acknowledge them.
“May I please take your order?” was all he would say. He didn’t want to talk about it.
Hannah Natanson is a Washington Post education reporter.