Anya Kamenetz is a longtime education reporter for NPR and co-creator of the podcast Life Kit: Parenting. She formerly reported for Fast Company and was a columnist for Tribune Media Services.
Below, Anya shares 5 key insights from her new book, The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, And Where We Go Now. Listen to the audio version—read by Anya herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Public schools are America’s weirdest institution.
In the United States, we are terrible at supplying affordable housing and generally, the public options for anything (like mass transit) are bad. Compared to other wealthy nations, we provide crumbs for families: no mandated paid leave, no family income support, and few childcare subsidies. Children in the U.S. are more likely to live in poverty than any other age group.
But in every neighborhood, in every city and town in America, there is a warm, lighted building that children are welcomed into for 180 days a year. There they will be safe, fed, and encounter caring adults, and maybe even learn something—all for free. This is public school.
Public schools are everywhere, yet, there is zero mention of education in the Constitution, and the federal government historically has allocated far less than ten percent of the fiscal budget towards education. Starting in colonial times, communities, churches, and civic groups took up collections and hired schoolmasters. And marginalized groups fought for expanded access to public schools.
“Nine out of ten families choose public schools.”
Another reason school is weird is that while no laws require voting or using the post office, children are legally required to attend school. That, or families must jump through hoops to get approval for homeschooling. Nine out of ten families choose public schools. Compulsory education laws created a social compact: you must show up, and we must provide you with an education. That compact is exactly what the pandemic broke.
2. Public schools are essential.
In March 2020, roughly a third of the workforce made a seamless transition to laptop work. Everyone else had to keep showing up in person to do essential jobs. Once you understand public schools as the most extensive social welfare institution in the U.S., it’s clear that they belong in the essential category.
With the lockdown, child hunger skyrocketed. The second largest public food program is the federal school lunch program, and they were handing out paper bags with sandwiches in parking lots. That approach just didn’t work. In April 2020, 17.5 percent of parents told the Census Bureau that their young children weren’t getting enough to eat—something that is usually too rare to appear in the data.
A girl I call Serena illustrates the essential nature of public schools. Serena was four years old when the pandemic hit. Like one in four children in America, Serena has an immigrant parent—Elisa came from Peru. At the time of lockdown, Elisa had one job cleaning hotel rooms and a second job cleaning the house of a man she called Don Victor. He fired her, but said she could get free food for herself and Serena from one of his restaurants. The first time she went she asked for two burritos. The second time she asked for three, thinking she might save one for later. The man behind the counter called the boss and passed the phone to Elisa. Don Victor asked, “Why are you asking for three burritos? There are only two of you.”
“The second largest public food program is the federal school lunch program.”
School was closed, daycares were closed, so Elisa and Serena took the bus together to the hotel every morning, and while her mother vacuumed, Serena tried watching her kindergarten teacher give video lessons on her mother’s phone. Then her mother needed to take the sheets down to the laundry, but this happened to be every day during math lessons, so Serena missed them. On weekends, they spent two hours standing in line for food handouts because Elisa had to save her cash to pay rent. After almost nine months of this, Serena wasn’t interested in reading or writing. She preferred TikTok over class. Her teacher told me that this was true for at least a quarter to a third of the kids in class.
Decades of research establish that children learn best when education is social and embodied. A screen can’t substitute that under ideal conditions, and for most kids, the conditions were not ideal.
3. The COVID response was uniquely bad for kids in blue America.
Most European countries largely reopened their schools and childcare centers in the fall of 2020 and kept them open, even when COVID surged again and they had to close bars, restaurants, and movie theaters. There were flaws and hiccups, but these nations sent the message with this action that they value children and families.
Red states in America ignored COVID, which was a huge problem in regard to vaccination, but they were quicker to reopen schools and that choice benefited children. Blue states like California had open dog parks with closed playgrounds and open bars with closed schools. Part of this was because of pre-existing political polarization which only grew to include reopening. Family values are a dominant topic of discussion in the U.S., so it struck me as strange that we were ignoring kids and stressing caregivers to the point that there was a spike in women in their 30s coming into the emergency room with acute alcoholic liver disease.
“If we start building our country to benefit children, it would benefit everyone.”
Strange is a euphemism. It was horrifying. America has gotten used to relying on women in place of building a real social safety net for families, and this won’t work anymore.
4. A child-centric society would be better for everyone.
The COVID experience was like a sudden cancer diagnosis that, at best, makes the patient overhaul their lifestyle. It was terrible, but also a wake-up call that our society needs to do things differently. If we start building our country to benefit children, it would benefit everyone. Win-wins include:
- Paid leave for all caregivers and subsidized childcare would allow more people (especially women) to stay in the workforce.
- Expanding high-quality preschool to three and four-year-olds will help kids catch up, and it builds humans who are better, more productive workers in the future.
- Walkable safe neighborhoods are good for kids and healthier for everyone.
- Thinking of challenges like the climate crisis, if we start acting with children’s well-being in mind, we will start making better choices.
5. Growth is better than resilience.
In conversations about recovery from this experience, there’s a lot of talk of resilience—especially with kids. But that’s not quite the right metaphor. Resilience is like grass that bounces back from a footstep. It goes back to where it was before. Young people are not like that. They are growing and developing; moving forward, not bouncing back.
Rather than thinking of kids (or of anyone) putting the pandemic behind them, think about how we can integrate this experience. Researchers say that some people who endure a traumatic experience enter a period of post-traumatic growth in which they consciously reflect on what happened and discover gratitude for it by identifying ways in which it was a positive experience.
Without denying the reality of what happened, I am interested in how we cultivate growth both in ourselves and our loved ones, and as a society. It starts by telling the story of what happened, including the hard parts.
To listen to the audio version read by author Anya Kamenetz, download the Next Big Idea App today: