The COVID-19 pandemic completely upended children’s lives as they knew it. What did they lose?
It’s been nearly two-and-a-half years, but Maya still remembers how on March 13, 2020, her son Jonah’s life completely changed.
“I’ll always remember the day that the shutdown happened because we were actually at his school," Maya, a mother, remembers.
"And we heard that this was Friday afternoon and we were not going to be going back to school that that next Monday. And I will always remember that night, because Jonah said to me as he was going to bed, 'I'm going to go crazy. I'm going to go crazy if I don't go to school.'”
Today, On Point: Maya is featured in education reporter Anya Kamenetz's new book. We'll talk with Kamenetz about how COVID changed children's lives in what she calls "The Stolen Year."
Anya Kamenetz, longtime education reporter. Author of many books, including The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, And Where We Go Now. (@anya1anya)
Maya, a mom in California's Bay Area.
During the COVID pandemic, the United States closed schools for longer than almost every other similarly-developed nation.
The price children are paying for those closures is only now becoming clear — and not only in terms of social development and mental health.
Just last week, the federal government released the so-called nations report card, the results of a national assessment that's been given to American students since the 1970s. And what they found shocked even the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the agency that administers the test.
American nine year olds performance in math and reading have dropped back to the levels they were two decades ago. Put another way, the pandemic erased 20 years of educational gains for third and fourth graders in this country.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Today, we're going to speak with longtime education reporter Anya Kamenetz about kids and the pandemic. She's published a new book titled The Stolen Year.
But before we speak with Anya, let's listen to the story of a student featured in her book.
Jonah is a middle schooler in California's Bay Area. He has autism, dyslexia and ADHD.
Before March 2020, Jonah was getting comprehensive and effective supports that helped him learn, moderate his behavior and engage with the world.
But he lost all that when schools closed. Jonah's mom says she'll never forget the day. March 13th, 2020, to be exact, when she found out San Francisco was shuttering its school buildings.
MAYA, JONAH's MOM: Because we were actually at his school, it was fifth grade, and he was getting a progress report. And it was a glowing progress report. And while we were there, all of our phones buzzed at the same time. And we heard that this was Friday afternoon and we were not going to be going back to school that next Monday.
CHAKRABARTI: As with most other districts across the country, the decision to close was a sudden turnabout for San Francisco schools. Just days earlier, on March 11th, 2020, Superintendent Vincent Matthews had assured families that schools would stay open.
VINCENT MATTHEWS [Tape]: At this time, the experts at the San Francisco Department of Public Health do not recommend broad public school closures as schools are essential service with multiple community benefits and children have not been shown to be a high risk group for serious illness at this time.
CHAKRABARTI: But also on March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Within the next two weeks, every single public school building in the United States would shut down in San Francisco. The school board called an emergency meeting on March 12th, after which Superintendent Matthews announced that the city's public school students would not be coming back into the classroom.
MATTHEWS [Tape]: Instead of doing reactive school by school closures, we're going to focus the next three weeks on how we can provide essential supports for our community in this new reality.
MAYA: And I will always remember that night. Because Jonah said to me as he was going to bed, I'm going to go crazy. I'm going to go crazy if I don't go to school. You know, he was, I think, 11 years old at the time. And he was right.
CHAKRABARTI: San Francisco schools were originally set to be closed for three weeks. It ended up being much, much longer.
MAYA: Jonah started middle school during the pandemic, fully remote. And so he went to a new school. New kids. New teachers. He later used the term, like it was just too distracting for him. He just he couldn't focus.
CHAKRABARTI: Jonas started sixth grade on August 17th, 2020. But even that seemed in limbo because of how long it took the district and the San Francisco Teachers Union to agree on what remote learning would look like.
SUSAN SOLOMON [Tape]: Each and every student will have live interaction and instruction every single day. Every single school day.
CHAKRABARTI: Susan Solomon is president of United Educators of San Francisco. On August 7th, 2020, she told KRON-TV that teachers would be working at least 7 hours a day with a minimum of 2 hours of live remote instruction. The rest of the time would be available for student support.
SOLOMON [Tape]: Teachers will be able to do whole group instruction, small group instruction, and 1 to 1.
CHAKRABARTI: Maya says that's not how it worked out for Jonah. He refused to do online school, and Maya says she had to bribe Jonah with candy to get him to log on for 15 minutes at a time.
MAYA: The crazy thing is, the teachers were so challenged themselves by the technology, it would take them 15 minutes just to take roll. And so the only part of school that Jonah would be doing would be taking roll.
CHAKRABARTI: Recall that Jonah is a child with autism and dyslexia. Before the pandemic, he'd been getting special services to help him both in school and at home. But once school went all remote, so did those services.
And when Jonah refused to go online for school, he lost access to the critical supports, too. August 2020 turned to September. And in September, San Francisco restaurants reopened indoor dining at 25% capacity for several months. Schools stayed closed, then fall turned to winter. And in December, the San Francisco School District and Teacher's Union failed to reach an agreement on how to return to in-person learning.
Frustration boiled over at a December 15, 2020 meeting of the Board of Supervisors, when even that city body could not agree on whether to pass a simple resolution, merely asking teachers and administrators if they could come up with a plan to reopen schools. Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer and Hillary Ronen could not hide their fury that San Francisco's prolonged school closures were setting back children of color and those with special needs the most.
HILLARY RONEN [Tape]: You talk to some of these parents and you talk to some of these children. It would break your heart. This is a disservice. This is racist, and this is a disservice. But I just don't understand why we just can't pass something so simple as a resolution that doesn't say you have to go back. It's just saying, can we create a plan to go back?
SANDRA LEE FEWER [Tape]: If you want to go and sit in five hour committees every other week ... begging, begging the school district to care to think about our children. We have got to work until blue in the face. And we have been told, no, no, we can't. We can't. And to not even be able to stand up today and say this is unacceptable for the children of the richest city in the country, is honest to God beyond me.
CHAKRABARTI: By February 2021, the city of San Francisco took an unusual step and sued its own school district, asking a court to order San Francisco Unified Schools to bring students back into buildings. COVID cases in the city had dropped dramatically, and San Francisco health officials determined that rates were low enough to safely reopen schools.
But the teachers union would not budge. And why? Well, it was for the exact same reason others demanded that schools reopen. Susan Solomon, union president, explained to public radio station KQED that teachers, too, were concerned about equity.
SUSAN SOLOMON [Tape]: Black and brown communities are seeing much higher rates of COVID, and we are emphasizing a lower community spread so that we can make sure that safety is first, not just for our members and educators, but for our students and their families.
CHAKRABARTI: Meanwhile, Jonah, one of those kids with special needs, was still struggling. He and most of the 56,000 students in San Francisco's public schools ended up missing more than a year of in-person learning. Elsewhere in the city, though, things were opening up.
In March 2021, restaurants reopened again at 25% capacity. Schools stayed closed to most students. In May, almost three quarters of San Franciscans were vaccinated. So San Francisco bars, restaurants, sporting events, even indoor saunas and steam rooms all reopened for business, up to 50% capacity, and owners celebrated.
Schools stayed closed. It wasn't until August 2021 that San Francisco schools finally fully reopened.
Maya had moved her family to another Bay Area city in the summer of 2021. Jonah was now in seventh grade. In August, he was receiving an in-person education for the first time as a middle schooler. But Maya says Jonah couldn't quickly overcome the cumulative effects of having spent more than a year not getting the kinds of therapy that had helped him navigate the world as a young boy with autism and dyslexia. So he fell behind almost immediately at his new school.
MAYA: Within two months, he had what was the first of two serious suicidal gestures.
CHAKRABARTI: Maya fought to get additional in-person help for Jonah, and she couldn't get it. Online supports were offered instead, which didn't work for him. Jonah started refusing to go to school several days a week. His depression and anxiety grew. This past April, Jonah attempted suicide again.
MAYA: He was taken as a level one trauma to the local children's hospital, where he was unconscious all night long, unresponsive. But he woke up the next morning and that began a whole new series of treatments.
CHAKRABARTI: Since then, Jonah has spent considerable time in residential treatment centers away from home, and Maya says he still has a long way to go.
MAYA: So you could certainly say we're still in it. We're still living with the impacts of the pandemic. You know, and while I'm definitely angry at the school districts and I'm angry at our insurance company and for not coming through, I also really understood that nobody was at their best. But it was all so much more severe than it ever needed to be because he just never got the supports that he needed during the pandemic.
CHAKRABARTI: Jonah is 12-years-old. Maya says he's not the only child she knows who suffered that stolen year.
MAYA: One child is actively suicidal and doing self-harm. Another one got hospitalized with an eating disorder. Another one started having nervous breakdowns and just couldn't take tests anymore. And this is in a close circle of friends. So while what happened to us is so serious, I have seen so much of it around me. It doesn't feel unique.
CHAKRABARTI: Today we're joined by Anya Kamenetz. She's NPR's education correspondent, and she reported exhaustively for more than two years on COVID's impact on America's tens of millions of schoolchildren. And that reporting has resulted in the new book. It's called The Stolen Year. Anya, welcome back to On Point.
ANYA KAMENETZ: Thank you so much for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: First of all, want to say thank you for connecting us with Maya so we could talk to her about the story, her story that you tell in the book about her son, Jonah. Can you tell us more, Anya, about what you learned following Maya and Jonah for more than a year?
KAMENETZ: You heard it there, just what overwhelmingly impressed me was how thoughtful and how hard working, lack of a better word, that family approached the incredible challenges that came with the pandemic. And, you know, they never gave up and they never stopped looking for the good and the moments of joy as few and far between as they were. And the other thing I want to emphasize, too, is that this is a family with resources. This is a family with education, with social capital, with connections in the Bay Area that had you know, Maya was already so experienced in finding the help that her son had needed from the time that he was little. So just imagine, just multiply that out to the impact on families that don't have any of those things.
CHAKRABARTI: You talk to families like that, who didn't have any of those things as well, I mean, there are many, many stories in the book. I was particularly taken by Jeannie in Oklahoma, if I remember correctly. Is that right?
KAMENETZ: Yeah. They're members of the Cherokee Nation not living in the reservation, but in rural Oklahoma.
CHAKRABARTI: But Jeannie also worked at the school she herself attended as a child.
KAMENETZ: That's right. She spent almost all of her life at this one school, which is a combined, you know, K through 12 public school kind of right on the highway. And all of her children had attended that school as well. So this really was her safe place. She had a lot of turmoil in her life. And she said school was the one place she was always able to come back to. That is until March 2020.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me more when schools first closed in Oklahoma, what was the impact on Jeannie and her family in those first in that first stretch of the pandemic?
KAMENETZ: You know, in the first stretch of the pandemic, this was a district that a lot of people didn't have connectivity. They didn't have computers or Internet. Some people were living without running water in that district. And so they didn't really have much hope of continuing education, at least in the spring. So it was something where she really felt cut off.
And I think she struggled with her own mental health. It turned out that her ten-year-old daughter, which was her middle child, really stepped up and started kind of running the household as far as cooking and cleaning and taking care of her younger siblings because she was really having such a hard time with it, with the loss of that routine.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, in the book you write that not only did she struggle, she struggled with the criticism that she was getting from other parents because she worked in the school. The criticism that she was getting, the backlash she was getting that the schools were closed from other parents. Can you tell us more about that?
KAMENETZ: Sure. I mean, you're right. This is a very red area of the country. And people really were angry that the schools were closed. They felt that it had been taken away from them. And, you know, she was angry right back because she said, you know, the pandemic is serious. People are not taking it seriously. But she also said that she understood. Because school really was the one kind of social institution in that town, you know, in that town, this is a town where, you know, it's just a row of empty storefronts on Main Street. You know, there's not a lot of institutions that really hold the town together other than, you know, small churches and things. So the school was it. And when the school went away, people were bereft.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I mean, in the book, there's a moment where you report that she says, I also understand. Because most of the people in my area have gone through a lot of trauma as well. I mean, she's really thoughtful about it. She says we're poor, uneducated. They grew up in trauma and then they put trauma on their kids. It's just a cycle. And so their stable places were taken from them, too. I don't want to get angry because we didn't provide for them. We didn't provide that stable place for them this year or their children.
So, I think for people who don't have a direct connection to their local public school, this is something that often gets forgotten. Can you describe to me or to us ... schools can be the heart and soul of a community. Aren't they?
KAMENETZ: You know, that's such a commonplace thing to say, but we don't often break down what that means. Yeah. In the book, we started with and it was so frustrating actually, in your opening segment to hear the politicians say, we understand school is an essential service. If you understand school is an essential service, why did we not treat it that way? That's really the central question of my book.
You know, I start with the fact that the school food program in the United States is the second largest public food program. It serves billions of meals a year. There are 30 million children who require those meals, who need those meals. And so when we closed schools and those programs shifted to giving out sandwiches in parking lots, the amount of food given out by two studies dropped by two thirds and children went hungry. Child hunger spiked to levels that have not been recorded in this country in modern times. Yeah, that's the beginning of it.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, so that's the beginning. Tell me more then. I mean, because I think again, you're right. Like people don't fully understand all the services that schools do provide and that when we closed them down, look, there was heroic efforts to make up for the loss of those services. But nothing can be the same as having, you know, the buildings open and all the abilities that come with that. So what were the other things that were taken in this stolen year?
KAMENETZ: So let's talk about safety. You know, we obviously, we have horrible acts and isolated acts of mass violence in schools, but statistically, schools are the safest places for children to be. They are safer than out on the street and they are safer than many homes. And that's a very sad fact. So I tell the story in the book of a little boy in Saint Louis who when schools closed, health care closed. His mother was an essential worker with eight children. She locked the doors on her kids when she had to go to work sometimes. And that little boy got out. He wandered to an abandoned building in a neighborhood in Saint Louis that is full of abandoned buildings. And he climbed into the window of that building and he was shot by a man that was in there, shot in the leg. He recovered, but that should never have happened.
CHAKRABARTI: So we have nutrition. We have safety. We have education. We also have community. And trusted adults who become mentors in the lives of children. We have all the special services that many children rely on in order to sort of get a fair shake in life as well. That was part of Maya and Jonas' story.
KAMENETZ: 14% of children in this country have special needs. And that ranges from, you know, a little more time on tests to having an aide with them all day long in the classroom. And the vast majority of those families that I spoke with told me remote was not adequate to provide what they needed.
CHAKRABARTI: By the way, just to circle back to something you said about the person who had said schools are essential services. In the beginning of the show, that was tape from San Francisco Superintendent Vincent Matthews on March 11th, 2020. And he was saying schools are essential services and they wanted to keep schools open. That was a man who wanted to keep the schools open. But he happened to say that on the same day that the WHO declared COVID a global pandemic.
So I think the shock of that and the politics that soon followed is what changed everything. I mean, so, Anya, we're now more than two years from that time. We're in September of 2022. At the very beginning of the program, I mentioned those assessment results that had come out from the federal Government last week about how much was lost educationally, at least for American nine-year-olds. What was your response when you first saw that those figures?
KAMENETZ: They add up with everything else that we've seen and everything that was predicted from the very beginning.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, why weren't you surprised? I mean, because I mean, there's things about your own background where you grew up and other places you've reported on where kids were out of school for much shorter periods of time. But you say in the book, we should have known this was going to happen. I'd love to hear you tell that story.
KAMENETZ: So when the pandemic hit, I was obviously, you know, had a shift to working remotely. I had two daughters who were now home from school and from preschool. And I knew because of my background in two ways. One was reporting on the aftermath of Katrina. So that was the only analog I could think of in modern times in America, where schools have been closed across an entire city. The schools in New Orleans were closed for an almost entire fall semester after the storm. Children were not out of school that entire time. Most of them who were displaced re-enrolled elsewhere within a couple of weeks. And then they gradually filtered back into the city, they had a variety of different outcomes.
But because of that interruption and everything that came with it, not just the educational interruption, but obviously the social upheaval, the economic shock and the trauma those children took two years to recover on their learning. As far as what we can measure with test scores, it took two years, several weeks away from school.
And so based on that and based on research from all over the world, we're talking about earthquakes and other kinds of pandemics, other kinds of natural disasters. I know the research suggested that having kids out of school for even just a couple of weeks would lead to a multi-year trajectory of recovery. But I could never have imagined that our schools would stay closed to millions of students for a year.
CHAKRABARTI: So do you think that kids will recover ever what they lost?
KAMENETZ: Well, recovery becomes a tricky thing to say because obviously, I mean, many people have pointed out learning standards are arbitrary, timescales are arbitrary. You know, it doesn't really matter in the scheme of things. If you learn to read when you're nine or when you're ten. But eventually these effects add up. And so if you're asking me whether, you know, we have a 20% drop over two years in community college enrollment, that has consequences. It has consequences in earning of those people, and in the workforce.
And we also know that educational attainment is attached to all these other lifetime trajectory issues, health, you know, whether people stay in long term relationships, voting like that, the connections are endless. And so the question is, are we a worse off country because of this or do we somehow knit things back together and become a better country and pay back what was lost? I want that question to be open. I don't want to say, you know, that it's just going to roll downhill because if it goes the way it's going, no, we're not going to recover.
CHAKRABARTI: We're not going to recover, meaning the kids will never make up academically or educationally what they what they lost? Even though we had all that remote school as well?
KAMENETZ: We understand that the remote school was not effective, it is clear that it was not effective. No, I mean, we're not going to recover in the sense that statistically, as a group, this generation will be marked. And as a nation, because young people, it's not just about their individual fates. It's about who we are as a country. And whether we have people coming up to build this country that are whole and that are healthy and that are prepared to take that on.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, you know better than anyone, because you've been reporting on education for so long that even the idea that kids being out of school for so long resulted in some kind of educational loss for them. There are people in education who dispute that. And so, I mean, we went back and looked at our own archives. And on August 13th of 2021, so almost exactly a year ago, we had a conversation with Cecily Myart-Cruz, who's president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teacher's union in L.A. and L.A. happens to be the second largest district in the country.
And kids had been out of school, out of the classroom, I should say, when we talked to Sicily for 15 months. At that time, they were about to go back to school for in-person learning for the first time since the pandemic had started. And so when I talked with Cecily Myart-Cruz, I pointed out that some studies already at that time a year ago had found that fewer than 45% of Black and Latino students were on track for early reading skills. Because so many of them didn't even have access to the kinds of remote learning that were offered. So I asked Cecily Myart-Cruz how much work lied ahead to remedy the impact COVID had had on these kids in Los Angeles. And here's what she said.
MYART-CRUZ: While our students were physically out of the classroom for almost two years. It is extremely counterintuitive to say they've suffered learning loss. While some of our students may not have learned everything described in their grade level curriculum. All of our babies learned. I'm a firm believer in the growth mindset, and during this pandemic, our students learned how to be resilient. They learned flexibility. They learned how to adapt. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
CHAKRABARTI: I have to say, like there was a time when schools and educators were rightfully worried even about learning loss over a period of ten weeks of summer vacation. So to hear that 15 months did not have an impact on students in some way, it kind of makes me wonder then what is ... the point of school where kids are supposed to learn reading, writing, science, history, all those things?
MYART-CRUZ: So to me, measuring students in a deficit model is not a win. We are acutely aware and concerned about the needs of our students, and when students return back to class full time, then we will see them make leaps and bounds. So that's what my position is. On learning loss. I think it's driven by standardization. I also think that the goalposts have always been moved, especially in the most marginalized communities.
CHAKRABARTI: So that's Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, on this show, August 13th, 2021. So a year ago, Anya, hearing her reject what she called, quote, the learning loss narrative more than a year ago. How does that land with you now?
KAMENETZ: I think it's really tricky. And I mean, I heard the frustration in your voice responding to her and I absolutely relate. And at the same time, I think there's two different ways of thinking about this. And it's part of the reason that I called my book The Stolen Year and not the Lost Year. So on the one hand, if you're approaching a child, the child is where they are, right? They're not behind anybody. They're where they are. And they need to be focused on how they can be successful in the future.
And that is how I want educators to approach my children, right? I don't want them to look at them and say they're at the 50th percentile. I want them to look at them and say they are so capable, they are so ready, and we we're going to give them everything they need. So that's why we, you know, people reject the deficit model, deficit language or fixed mindset. That's appropriate, I think, in an educational context.
But if you are an educator. And you're honest. You know that these children did not get what they needed. And that's for a combination of reasons, is partly because of, you know, not necessarily because of your efforts, but because of the context you were working in. These kids did not get what they needed. They did not get what they deserved. And we have to be so clear eyed and saying that.
On how schools are the heart of a community
Anya Kamenetz: "It was so frustrating, actually, in your opening segment to hear the politicians say, we understand school is an essential service. If you understand school is an essential service, why did we not treat it that way? That's really the central question of my book. I start with the fact that the school food program in the United States is the second largest public food program. It serves billions of meals a year.
"There are 30 million children who require those meals, who need those meals. And so when we closed schools and those programs shifted to giving out sandwiches in parking lots, the amount of food given out by two studies dropped by two-thirds, and children went hungry. Child hunger spiked to levels that have not been recorded in this country in modern times. That's the beginning of it."
Will kids recover what they lost?
Anya Kamenetz: "Many people have pointed out learning standards are arbitrary, timescales are arbitrary. It doesn't really matter in the scheme of things if you learn to read when you're nine or when you're ten. But eventually these effects add up. ... We have a 20% drop over two years in community college enrollment, that has consequences. It has consequences in earning of those people, and in the workforce.
"And we also know that educational attainment is attached to all these other lifetime trajectory issues, health, whether people stay in long term relationships, voting, the connections are endless. And so the question is, are we a worse off country because of this? Or do we somehow knit things back together, and become a better country and pay back what was lost? I want that question to be open. I don't want to say, you know, that it's just going to roll downhill. Because if it goes the way it's going, no, we're not going to recover."
Why was the U.S. such an outlier when compared to similarly resourced nations?
Anya Kamenetz: "The nations I'm comparing us with had they found two buckets. The first bucket is the ones who controlled the pandemic. They limited deaths. So Japan, New Zealand, Korea, and that's where we all would like to be. We all would like to be in a situation where we limited the spread of the virus. The second bucket of countries, mostly European, as well as Israel, they didn't limit the spread of the virus as well. They had waves of infections, the way that we did. But after the initial spring, they pulled it together and they said, Schools are our priority. Children are a priority. We're going to put them first.
"And so there were increasingly clear directives from the European equivalent of the CDC, as well as the World Health Organization, that schools were an essential service that should be prioritized over others. And when new waves of the virus came, when Delta came, when Omicron came, they closed other things. They closed bars, restaurants. I reported in Germany, they closed legal brothels, outdoor markets. They kept schools and they kept childcare open. And so, I mean, there was a period on the end of that sentence.
"At the same time, they were able to do that because they had nationalized centralized school systems. And we don't have that. We have this incredibly decentralized and very small d democratic school system. So it could not have been any one person's decision to open schools the way that it might have been in France or in Germany. And so there's a procedural reason to why, but I really am stuck on the moral, ethical reason. Why did we not, as a society, clearly decide to prioritize children the way that European countries did?"
On how the education system should be set up
Anya Kamenetz: "Well, it's a little bit counterintuitive, but the first thing I would like to do is remove all of these jobs from the shoulders of schools and from teachers. I want us to have a social welfare family infrastructure in this country that every other wealthy country has. I want us to have paid leave, child care subsidies and a child tax credit so we don't have so many millions of children in poverty with the traumas that come with poverty, coming into the schools.
"That's what we need to do first. Once schools have been relieved of all of those jobs, or they have people joining them in those jobs, other institutions joining in the work of schools, that schools are doing all by themselves, then we can start to talk about and at the same time, we still have to talk about how we update our curricula to make sure that we're going to intensively work with these children over the next years.
"This isn't a one year situation, and federal funding has already been provided. It's going to go out in 2024. Schools need to use that money. They need to tell everyone how they're using it. They need to continue to hire and supplement the at the time of learning. And they need to not give up. Because it's something we can all agree on, is that children are embodied with potential. And we have to see them as having that potential, and being able to recover from this."
This program aired on September 7, 2022.