History is supposed to guide us toward a better future; at least, that’s the argument for Anya Kamanetz’s new book “The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now.” We certainly need a better future! The pandemic’s effects on children continue to frustrate and scare us: in addition to disease, there’s quarantining, there’s masks, there’s social and emotional impact, there’s academic losses.
Two and a half years in, with the BA.5 COVID variant sweeping through the country, it can feel like we’re not in vaccinated past-pandemic recovery, but rather a newly permanent state of crappiness.
Why? The implicit argument of “The Stolen Year” is that the problems facing education are not actually about COVID. “Our country has continued failing to put children at the center of our decision making,” writes Kamenetz.
Note her use of the word “continued.” Hers is a sort of history of March 2020 to February 2021, but she’s really far more concerned with continuities with what came before the pandemic, and why America has so little support for children and families even now.
The book is structured in chapters about topics like “hunger,” “childcare,” and “mental health.” Each is an indictment of our lack of a functional social safety net, which led to so much misery when schools—the one universal support we offer children and parents—closed in March 2020. She quotes one mental health provider on the crisis: “Admissions haven’t gone up, because we are always at capacity.”
On child care, she writes, “Our tattered system hurts caregivers. And it hurts children.”
That’s really the theme of the book: “That was the status quo prior to 2020. The pandemic made everything worse.”
The most arresting details appear in the individual stories of children she follows, like the seven-year-old in St. Louis who was shot in May 2020 while roaming his neighborhood on a Tuesday with nothing else to do while schools were closed. But Kamenetz, a former NPR reporter, seems more invested in ranging through history and politics, broadly surveying the various systems, programs and adults meant to support children.
The downside of that approach is that, in a book about “how COVID changed children’s lives,” the pandemic often feel absent. She breaks little new ground with her accounts of motherhood, racism, the history of public schools and other themes; I wish she had spent less time in the 19th and 20th centuries and more on anything after October 2020.
She’s best when she focuses on the most vulnerable, as in a chapter on foster care and juvenile justice. But her kitchen-sink approach (she starts almost every chapter with a wacky quote from President Trump such as “person woman man camera TV”) is exhausting.
The book is most frustrating when Kamenetz addresses the controversy at its heart: America’s extended school closures. She writes that “the US closed most classrooms for a total of fifty-eight weeks, compared with thirty-three weeks in Finland, twenty-seven weeks in both the UK and China, eleven weeks in Japan, and just nine weeks in New Zealand.”
Why were we, among rich countries, such an outlier?
She doesn’t really have an answer. Kamenetz calls her book The Stolen Year. The “year” part makes sense: those fifty-eight weeks of closed classrooms. The “stolen” part is harder. Kamenetz writes, in a passive voice, that school “was taken away.” Taken by whom? If this was a year stolen from American children, who stole it? If you’re looking for actual thieves, not a mindless virus, to blame, you’ve come to the wrong book. Kamanetz has lots of explanations for the extended closures, but she’s careful not to blame teachers, or administrators, or unions or anyone, really.
I sense that even the author has ambivalence about her own approach: she says her chapter on schools “picks apart how the United States failed to get so many students back in classrooms for so long,” but later says, “My intention here in this chapter is not to relitigate this mess or point fingers.” If remote school was a disaster, reopening long delayed, and a full year stolen, then I, for one, want this book to point some fingers!
We learn a lot from this book about child-related policy in the United States, but what about our country led to the most important aspect of the pandemic for most children—they didn’t go to school for more than a year—remains unexplained.
Here’s my explanation. President Trump made seriousness about COVID a politically polarized issue: his became the coalition against caution, against masks, against vaccines. And part of his agenda was re-opening schools. So anti-Trump states and cities—including big-district leaders and union officials—decided that to take COVID seriously included not re-opening. The anti-Trump coalition took part in making schools part of our polarized politics. Trump and his antagonists stole the year.
How, then, can this history guide those of us who care about the future of public education?
The lesson is to fight for public education in as inclusive and big-tented a way as possible. Sure, there are those who really don’t like public schools. (Just like there were those who really did minimize COVID) But as Americans grow ever more polarized, public education needs the support of those in both coalitions. We can’t react to attacks on our education system by closing the tent against those who don’t share Kamenetz’s progressive values (or mine). It’ll just lead to more shutting down.
There’s a lot of appropriate anger in this book. There’s anger everywhere in our society these days, it seems, including around children—from school board meetings to continued online arguments over whether schools should have been closed for so long.
There’s so much anger, in part because it’s hard to find someone to blame. No one’s responsible for America’s children and the structures that fail to serve them, which also means that no saviors are coming. We ourselves, all of us, are responsible for what has happened, and what will happen, to our children.
Despite Kamenetz’s first draft of history, the story of the pandemic’s impact on children has yet to be told. In part, that’s because we are so far from knowing how it ends.