Closing system

Book Review “The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives and Where We’re Going Now” by Anya Kamenetz


We’ve all heard, by this point, that school closures in the first year of the pandemic hurt children. We have heard that children have fallen behind where they should be academically, with the most vulnerable slipping the fastest; that many children with disabilities did not learn anything at all and began to regress; that the youngest citizens of the country have spent years feeling upset, angry, sad, frustrated and oh so lonely.

But many Americans haven’t actually seen it — apart, for some, from the effects on their own families. We haven’t seen moments like these:

A 7-year-old black boy in St. Louis, unable to access a work computer from home, begins skipping school remotely in May 2020. Instead, he puts on his red school uniform 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 kindergartener misses his classmates so much at the end of the 2019-2020 school year that he stops eating. His parents tell him he can’t leave the table until he’s finished eating, and things seem to be looking up – but his mother, suspicious of the boy’s increasingly thin cheeks, searches the trash can and discovers that he secretly spit his little bites of waffles, sandwiches and broccoli into napkins.

“He was, like, just laying in his bed,” the boy’s mother later recounted. “My baby. To say he’d rather just die, over and over and over again.

These and other painful snapshots of how America has failed its school children are captured in Anya Kamenetz’s painstakingly researched, unforgiving, and intimately detailed new book, “The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Lives children and where we are going now”.

As children head back to school in this third year of the pandemic, Kamenetz gave us essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how America’s schools and schoolchildren fared early. The book also investigates the historical factors, the blatant inattention, and the racist and sexist underworld that have shaped America’s school and childcare systems into what they were when 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 basics missing such as soap, paper towels and running water when the virus arrived; how the nation’s refusal to invest in childcare or provide paid family leave created a shaky and unequal system that crumbled, flattening many mothers, when schools closed; 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 was at its most required.

“It’s entirely possible that ultimately districts and states will end up spending more money to fight families in court for COVID-related denial of services and to pay families’ legal costs when ‘they lose, than they spend on the services themselves,” writes Kamenetz. “Meanwhile, months become years and children grow.

She analyzes America’s performance against peer countries, noting that we have kept schools closed longer than many parts of Asia-Pacific and that, unlike Europe, Britain and Israel, we have prioritized the reopening of other institutions – bars, restaurants, businesses – before the places where the next generation is supposed to go to learn.

She also offers lucid, lucid insights into how systems and people worked and did not work during the pandemic. For example, she asks us to think of the effects of the virus on children “as being like the climate crisis. More heat stress, more energy in the atmosphere increases the likelihood and intensity of individual disasters like wildfires and floods. … In the same way, [the pandemic] raised the substantive conditions that made ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] more numerous and more severe, especially for already vulnerable children.

She breaks the fourth wall to make another salient point: “More than nine out of ten of the researchers, advocates, and other experts I spoke to for this book were women. Because that’s who kids tend to study. And many of these women were raising children themselves. When the country needed voices like [theirs] more, their capacity was limited by the same disaster that affected everyone.

To his credit, Kamenetz has no desire to play the blame game. Rather than rolling out a favorite right-wing argument — that left-leaning parents, school officials and teachers’ unions were responsible for school closures — or hearing claims from progressives that proponents of reopening schools schools that deny the virus and support Trump didn’t care much about whether teachers lived or died, Kamenetz takes a more balanced view.

“These decisions should not have been left to the districts in the first place,” she wrote. “They were mired in political battles. They had little relevant expertise to judge incomplete and emerging evidence.

Still, the book is confusing at times, jumping back and forth in time despite its apparent division into sections titled “Spring 2020,” “Summer 2020,” and so on. The plethora of voices from experts, parents and students from across the country can be overwhelming – and sometimes I wanted more direct quotes and thoughts from the children she interviewed, rather than summaries of the views of their parents.

There’s a little too much emphasis on story for a book that, Kamenetz promises in the introduction, will tell “the story of 2020 and 2021 in the words of children and teenagers across the country.” At times the book also suffers from clumsy writing – for example, a triply mixed metaphor in which Kamenetz declares that “child care politics” is a “field… criss-crossed with bright lines and third rails, like the ‘one of those laser mazes in a movie heist.” Elsewhere, she jarringly chimes in, mocking a senator’s statement, “Hahahaha that’s a sweet thought, man.”

The book is at its best when Kamenetz’s human reporting is allowed to dominate the page. These moments will remain the most engraved in my memory:

The Brooklyn teacher who realized the school system wasn’t keeping its promise of deep cleaning when she penciled a desk, then arrived the next morning to find it hadn’t been wiped clean day to day.

The 11-year-old autistic and dyslexic boy from San Francisco who, frustrated by his inability to learn on Zoom, begged his parents: “I want to die. I wish I could kill myself. I want you to kill me!”

The Oklahoma reservation teenager who lost his scholarship when his grades plummeted during online learning, leaving him unable to accept the offered spot at his dream school, l State of Oklahoma. When the teenager’s mother and Kamenetz showed up at the Sonic restaurant where he worked, he refused to acknowledge them.

“Can I take your order please?” was all he would say. He didn’t want to talk about it.

Hannah Natanson is an educational reporter at the Washington Post.

How Covid has changed children’s lives and where we are going now

Public affairs. 352 pages. $29