COVID school closures were a crime against children, claims ‘The Stolen Year’ by Anya Kamenetz
The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives and Where We’re Going Nowby Anya Kamenetz, Public Affairs, 352 pages, $17.99
Twelve years after being acquitted of murder, OJ Simpson and a ghostwriter wrote a book called If I did. I remembered when The Stolen Year arrived at my door. Chronicling the horrors wrought by COVID policies that kept American children away from their school buildings and childhood milestones for over a year, this book was written by someone at the crime scene, intimate with the details bloody and ultimately indifferent to the reckoning with who was responsible. It’s a whodunnit without a culprit.
As The Stolen Yearas the title suggests, a crime has been perpetrated against American children during the pandemic – a crime that “increases[d] inequality and destroy[ed] individual hopes and dreams,” whose “impact can be measured over a generation,” in the words of author Anya Kamenetz.
Kamenetz, an NPR education reporter, is highly trained and knowledgeable. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that degrees and expertise in the field don’t necessarily lead people to good decisions or good interpretations of data. Knowing the facts was not synonymous with having the courage to resist the pressure to padlock playgrounds.
There were signs in Kamenetz’s reporting that she understood the risks of school openings being exaggerated and the harms of closings being downplayed. (I’ve often shared her early reports on the safe opening of YMCAs for the children of essential workers.) Even so, she admits that she and her colleagues have largely missed the biggest story in the history of the modern education.
“Everything was easy to predict,” she said Note. “So we could have been a lot louder.”
They could have been louder. NPR and other national news outlets weren’t replete with stories about how remote learning was exacerbating existing inequalities. Public radio did not send out warnings in its sonic tones commensurate with what Kamenetz knew was generational harm, hitting poor and minority students the hardest. He did not describe in detail the politically and ethnically diverse coalition of parents who fought for a year to open the doors of urban and suburban schools. He did not pressure major districts and teachers’ union leaders on their insistence on staying closed while the rest of the world opened up safely. (COVID policies closed many US schools for 58 weeks, compared to 33 in Finland, 27 in China and the UK, 11 in Japan and even fewer in Denmark and Sweden.)
Kamenetz’s reporting on the pain families are enduring in 2020 and 2021 in remote learning is rich and touching. From rural Oklahoma to New York, we meet children who have struggled with fear, depression, boredom and learning loss; we meet single mothers cut off first from income and then from food for their children that was once available in schools.
These stories of American families juggling loss of routine, child care, therapy services, etc. are the most interesting part of this book. Their stories have always been important and, as Kamenetz belatedly notes, predictable. Jonah in San Francisco, diagnosed with autism, became violent after hours of screen time at school as the city shut down the skate park he frequented; Alexis in Hawaii, a non-verbal child who regressed in diapers when deprived of in-person services; Khamla, who was kicked out of his family’s home following allegations of abuse and neglect. All predictable.
“It looked like depraved indifference to the welfare of children,” Kamenetz wrote in 2022. It was.
These are the stories parents in Facebook groups and school board Zoom meetings were desperately telling to their local bureaucrats and teachers’ unions as they fought to open schools. For their efforts, they have been called heartless, ignorant and elitist. The Department of Justice sent out a notorious memo saying the vocal activism deserved an investigation. I guess they have a little too strong.
A school board member from Alexandria, Virginia, whose tone was typical of the overworked official response, asked parents, “Do you want your child alive or do you want your child educated?” The Chicago Teachers’ Union tweeted (and later deleted) that the fight for school openings was ‘rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny’, even as parents rightly argued that the closures of schools deepened all the gaps the same group claims to care about between white students and minorities, rich and poor. Those who had or had the resources and time to fight were vilified as privileged yoga mothers who wanted their babysitters back.
Yet this book is all alarming and without counting, two years too late. The reading of this book in 2022 by a top media reporter who could have corrected the narrative in real time feels like Adam Sandler’s lament in The Wedding Singer after being dumped by his fiancée at the altar: “Again, things that could have been brought to my attention yesterday!”
It’s perhaps uncharitable to compare the author to ’90s villains like OJ or the vapid bride of the wedding singer. But it only takes 35 pages to compare people like me, public school mothers forced out of the system by dysfunctional COVID policies that left us uneducated for months, to Buchananites and segregationists. All because we promote school choice policies and home schooling options that other parents can access when public institutions abandon them and insult parents who complain about them.
In the lexicon of The Stolen Yearpublic schools have detractors, “like members of marginalized groups who want them to do better,” and “enemies,” like us school choices, who claim to “support systemic inequalities.”
Meanwhile, the book assures us that there is no need to “throw up this mess or point fingers”. Teachers’ unions are mentioned perhaps five times, union leader Randi Weingarten twice. Their image as “puppet masters” is declared inaccurate, despite evidence of Weingarten’s deep involvement in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reopening guidelines that kept schools closed. It’s up to a progressive Oakland nonprofit leader to say, “We need to look long and hard at union agreements that maintain a status quo where our kids can’t read!”
Right-wing COVID denial was a problem, but the unscientific policies that kept schools closed in blue America were simply more victims of a “polarized cacophony…that made it hard for science authorities to listen.” Who’s to say who’s to blame for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ fateful flip-flop on in-person tuition for two weeks in 2020? Blame the “cacophony,” not dereliction of duty in the political winds.
When Kamenetz distributes blame, it is reserved for Donald Trump, America, greedy and ill-advised legislators, underfunding, systemic racism.
As we work our way out of this mess, Kamenetz has a prescription. His book is full of examples of failing public institutions, but his answer is more public institutions with more resources. An iconic passage presents a more expansive Head Start program – the federally funded service for children under 5 and free for those at the poverty line – as a solution to the child care problem. unaffordable children in America. A paragraph later, Kamenetz notes that “the vast majority of Head Start centers closed on March 24, 2020 and remained closed in many cases throughout the spring and fall, leaving the country’s most needy children without child care”.
In contrast, we have the private school administrator Hope Day School who works around the clock to read scientific studies and advice to keep his doors open. A Dallas parent and ER doctor told Kamenetz that the school gave him more consistent child care and communication than the public school system. There is no exploration of why this might be the case, why private schools were willing and able to remain open blocks of public schools that never tried, or why we had the maddening practice of to host physical learning centers for Zoom School in public schools. There is almost no credit given to the red states that have implemented a good school policy, doing so – dare I say it?
What about the moms who stood up to reopen schools? They are not among those being profiled, but Kamenetz has thoughts on such activism. She berates “women who have more economic and political power…who choose not to leverage that power for the benefit of women who have less” – then, later, strikes at the privilege of women who ” formed emergency committees to open schools.” So good luck, ladies.
The Stolen Year is right about the science that would have allowed the public schools of blue America to open, and the terrible consequences of ignoring it. That’s welcome — and coming from an NPR reporter, it might convince liberals who would otherwise reject the idea that their leaders have caused a massive increase in historic inequality. If only he had come earlier and much stronger.