The 180 Podcast: Anya Kamenetz: We Didn’t Prioritize Kids — COVID, The Stolen Year, and Where We Go Now
In her new book The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now — a book that is already an Amazon “best of the month” selection — Anya Kamenetz writes that in March 2021, experts in pediatric infectious diseases reported that American youth were experiencing food insecurity, lack of socialization, depression, isolation….and were suffering academically, emotionally, socially and physically.
Nonetheless, she laments, “our country has continued failing to put children at the center of our decision making to prevent or remedy these eventualities even though they were foreseen from the very beginning. We did grave harm to children simply by failing to consider their needs at all.”
Certainly the pandemic has a profound effect on every person around the globe, uprooting routines and cutting us off from vital networks. Teachers and experts Kamenetz interviewed revealed the cascading losses of delayed emotional development, missed learning opportunities, and social disconnection as schools shifted operations to remote learning.
But what about now? Have children — and schools — rebounded? What lessons for learning came out of the pandemic — and how are parents, educators and administrators applying them to everyday teaching?
More on Kamenetz: She has covered education for many years, including for NPR. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including Generation Debt, and The Art of Screen Time. Anya was named a 2010 Game Changer in Education by the Huffington Post and received the Edward R. Murrow Award for innovation in 2017 along with the rest of the NPR Ed team.
Chris Riback: Anya, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.
Anya Kamenetz: Thanks so much for having me, Chris.
Chris Riback: I think to get into many, if not all, of the questions that your book raises, especially the current impact from the pandemic, what kids in schools face now, it helps to go back even before the pandemic and set your own personal context. Why did you choose to cover the education beat as a reporter? What’s so special about this field?
Anya Kamenetz: Such a great question. I love it. I was drawn into covering education from the perspective of students as a recent graduate myself, and I started writing about college students’ experiences and then moved on in life and had my own children and got very interested in the K-12 and the pre-K-12 system. And what I always like to tell people is, we have a very weak and fragmented social welfare system in this country. We don’t have paid family leave. We don’t have a robust public housing system. We don’t have great public transportation. We don’t have great healthcare for people, but we do have these incredible places in every neighborhood where a young person can go for 180 days a year, and they are fed. They are sheltered. They are the safest they’re going to be in almost any location, and they are learning, and they are finding caring adults. And so it’s such an anomaly in our society that it’s actually worth, I think, a little bit of curiosity, even though we all take it for granted and almost all of us have been in a school ourselves.
Chris Riback: So given that anomaly, given what we all know about the history of education up to March 2020, What happened to the children when the pandemic arrived and so many schools and businesses closed?
Anya Kamenetz: We pulled a plug. There was no way to adequately substitute for all of the different tasks that we had burdened and I would argue overburdened our school infrastructure with. So I start with meals because I follow kind of like the high hierarchy needs loosely in the book. And the school lunch program is the second largest federal hunger program. It feeds 30 million children. So in February 2020, I went to Boulder Valley, where the head of a school food program was doing all this amazing work. And she has a national foundation, all this amazing work on local food systems, sustainability integration with a science curriculum, stopping food waste.
So I Zoomed with her in April 2020 because that’s what we were doing really early in the pandemic. And I was like, “Chef Anne, how’s it going?” And she was like, “Oh my God, my workers are now frontline workers. They didn’t sign up for that.” We have to improvise sanitation protocols. All of our ordering has to be upended because we’re used to doing small hot meals, and now we have to do groceries for a week.
And they had switched to giving out meals in parking lots. And that’s what schools did all over the country. And the number of meals given out drop by two-thirds because there’s such a big difference, even if your school’s half a mile away, but it’s a lockdown order versus sending your kid to school every day where they get that meal it’s night and day difference. And so families went hungry very quickly. They ran out of food.
Chris Riback: Pulling the plug as you described, you have covered education as we’ve noted for a number of years, are kids equipped for a pull the plug situation?
Anya Kamenetz: It’s a scandal, what we’ve allowed to have happen in America that children have the highest poverty rate of any age group. We have social security for old people, but we don’t have anything resembling it for children. So we have a situation where I’ve read, around one-quarter of children have at least one parent who’s an immigrant, one in 10 are language learners. 51% are considered low income. And in large urban districts like New York City, one in 10 of the children are housing insecure.
So kids lost a lot when schools were closed. It shouldn’t be that schools have to do all these things. They don’t do them all perfectly, but that’s what was there. And then it wasn’t.
Chris Riback: So as disasters occur, as events occur throughout history, terrible events, about the only positive that we all try to put on any of them is, well, we’ve learned lessons. Now, we’re going to take lessons from this event and apply them to the next ones. You covered Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Many of those kids, the so-called “storm kids”, had to change schools then as their schools closed for just a few weeks. And you note that I’m quoting you here, “Almost immediately enrolled in school, usually a better funded higher performing school elsewhere.” Nevertheless, so even with all of that good stuff there, that’s my editorial comment. Nevertheless, it took them more than two years until the spring of 2008 to catch up to where they had been academically.
Why did such a short absence or change have such a profound impact? And secondly, perhaps more importantly, why did we as a country fail to learn our lesson from Katrina?
Anya Kamenetz: Great questions. So the first answer is that school closures don’t occur in a vacuum. So in the context of Hurricane Katrina, this was a society-wide catastrophe across an entire city. It was an economic upheaval. It was a public health disaster. It was a trauma, an emotional trauma, and obviously, all of that applies to the pandemic as well.
So when you go through an all-society trauma, and kids lose access to school as one safe place, there are so many different reasons that might divert them from returning to that same academic path. They might experience a loss of purpose or meaning. They might be pulled into work, paid work to support their families, or caregiving work to help the household. And these are all things we saw with Katrina. And they’re also things that we saw during the pandemic.
If you ask why we didn’t learn from it, catastrophes are surprising. That’s kind of their nature, and nobody expected a pandemic. We’ve had pandemics before that closed schools, but briefly and in a scattered way here and there, not all at once and not for months.
Chris Riback: If I remember from your book, the previous time maybe when it had occurred was 1917, ’18, during influenza. I think you cited a couple of other cases where it happened in local areas for short periods of time, you might have identified a couple of areas outside of the US where schools had to close for extended periods, but in the US, it had been 100 plus years since anything like that had occurred.
An obvious difference between a disaster in 2020 and a disaster in 2008, besides the difference between pandemics and hurricanes, is technology had really advanced. And how fortunate we all are when schools went down, online learning could start up and could replace that in-person experience. Anya, why is online learning so hard?
Anya Kamenetz: I’ve covered and written books about online learning and all of its promise and all of its affordances, and capacities. And I think it can work really, really well. However, there is an extent to which, for children who are under, I would say 15 or 16, that learning is so social and so embodied, but going on through the teenage years, they need to be in a physical place and interact physically with objects in order to have optimal learning experiences and their motivation for learning comes from their relationships, their relationships with teachers and their relationships with peers.
So this is why I heard so urgently from mental health providers during the pandemic to say that we see these kids who can’t get out of bed and they can’t engage on Zoom 11, 12. These are 11, 12, 13, 14, 15-year-olds. And there’s a very good reason for that, which is they are not wired to learn independently in this way. They have lost the meaning of school, the context of school. Why do kids go to school? They go to school to see their friends. They go to school to have an emotional experience, to do the things that they love.
And with all of that gone, they had no contact with the reality of their material. And it was so hard to see teachers struggling to put lessons across to students who just couldn’t engage. Two halves of a pair that I studied in detail, Debbie Rosenthal, Harris, who was a kindergarten teacher, a bilingual kindergarten teacher from San Francisco. So incredible. So engaging.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Anya Kamenetz: Totally reinvented her teaching to make these videos that were kind of like, Sesame Street quality, like singing, she’s pointing to things, and she’s doing live video teaching plus excerpt videos. Her students are on phones. One of her students that I met was at her mother’s housekeeping job at a hotel on her mother’s phone. She can’t participate. She can’t do the written assignments. As someone in her first year of school, she’s not even learning to hold a pen. So she’s not making any progress in writing. It’s just like such a disconnect.
Chris Riback: Besides the obvious, there was a pandemic. Why did it go on so long?
Anya Kamenetz: So America was a global outlier among wealthy nations, and how long it kept its doors closed. And in particular, for the students that needed school the most, and this would be, generally speaking, students that are racialized minorities, they were the most likely to stay home in situations where they had a choice. And so, the remote option became an option in many districts. Starting in the fall of 2020, other districts stayed completely closed throughout that most of that year.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Anya Kamenetz: So let’s look at countries that did a better job. Some of them controlled the pandemic. They controlled cases, and they controlled deaths. And with the pandemic under control, they didn’t have a controversy about opening schools. So that’s the easiest path. Be New Zealand, be Japan. Don’t let the cases get out of control. And if a country’s doing a good job controlling the pandemic, it’s probably because there’s a strong social consensus on the best safety protocols to follow. There wasn’t a problem. There was never a question in Japan about whether or not they’re going to wear masks. They’re still wearing masks in school. So that’s one path. That would’ve been great.
Countries in Europe and Israel is another example. They didn’t control the pandemic so well. They had waves, they had surges, but they put kids at the front of the line. They had a very strong public commitment to opening schools. And when they had to, they closed other things first.
So they closed restaurants. They closed bars. In Germany, they closed legal brothels. That’s my favorite example, in December 2020. They kept schools open because they knew that they were essential places. And with that public commitment, again, you’re putting a stake in the ground, and you’re creating a moral rallying point where it’s not the teachers didn’t have some objections. They definitely did, especially in the UK. It’s not that parents didn’t have misgivings. They definitely did. I talked to parents in Switzerland and parents in Israel who were like, “This is kind of dicey. We’re not so sure that it feels really safe, but the push, the social push, was to keep the kids in school.”
That’s what the countries that managed to open up did right. And I think there’s such a massive kind of social proof dimension to this because people trust that schools are safe if schools are open because people trust their schools and they trust their teachers. And in the United States, we had this huge polarization, and you had teachers going on marches with cardboard children’s coffins saying, “Your children are going to die if we open schools,” it’s very, very hard for a parent to trust. Even if the mayor is saying one thing, and then your teacher is saying something else.
Chris Riback: So we went through that, and our kids went through that, and they went through it in spring of 2020, and then fall of 2020 and into 2021. What’s the present impact on what was lost? Are the prospects of education profoundly changed, some children more than others? What’s happening now, Anya?
Anya Kamenetz: So I just want to quickly fill in that the last school year also had a very extreme rate of chronic absenteeism. And that was because of COVID quarantines and also staff shortages that required schools to close. So it wasn’t a full recovery year for most people.
Chris Riback: Even in 2021. Yes. Thank you.
Anya Kamenetz: That said, where are we at now? Well, there’s one study that actually tried to quantify it in terms of Katrina’s at a multiple of Katrina. So, two to four times the impact of Katrina, which would suggest a four, six, eight-year recovery trajectory. Obviously, not all kids have that long. And so there’s a lot of, I think, important emphasis here because the developmental trajectory for kids is so different.
So we are really concerned about kids who had been identified as having a disability before the pandemic, and also the kids who weren’t identified as having a disability during the pandemic because they missed early intervention and they missed screening. There’s a broad sense across the board that kids with disabilities did not have their individualized education plans fulfilled during the pandemic…. There’s backups in people getting screened and referred for treatment, and there is a huge need for compensatory services.
There’s a big area of concern about kids who missed pre-K and kindergarten because we know that those are leveling years. Those are years where you can create social mobility and a leg up for kids through access to high-quality programs. And that’s exactly what kids didn’t have because especially kids who were lower income didn’t go to those programs. They stayed home out of fear. So that’s a really huge area of concern.
We’re concerned about kids who were zero to three, kids who were born during the pandemic missed out on socialization, might have missed out on childhood vaccinations, missed out on their speech delay, being identified for a variety of reasons. And at the other end of the spectrum, we’re worried about the drop in college-going, which is very large in an outlier, again, in the US. I gave a talk in Canada, a virtual talk, and they didn’t have the downturn that we had. And it’s such an indictment of our approach to the pandemic from a social equity perspective.
Chris Riback: Anya, to a significant extent, the US kept its schools closed longer than many other locations, as you identified. Was that largely because of the teachers? Was that largely because of unions? They were very well organized. Did they do a differentiated job than in other countries around prioritizing may not be the right word, but heightening awareness on teachers’ well-being? What was it? What’s the why? Why did school stay closed longer in the US than many other locations?
Anya Kamenetz: I know that it’ll be really satisfying to be able to point the finger at a single culprit, but the problem is that our school system is so decentralized and so small d democratic. School reopening plans were polarized here to an extent that was unheard of elsewhere. There was almost a one-to-one correlation between Trump voting, county by county, and whether or not schools opened in the fall of 2020.
But unfortunately, oftentimes in the reddest states and counties, they opened with very little in the way of mitigations that would’ve actually allowed them to stay open safely. So there was this really unfortunate polarization between open and unsafe or closed and unsafe for different reasons, I would argue.
I don’t think it’s all about unions. I think that in the absence of clear leadership from our medical authorities or health authorities, as well as our political authorities and those had to be working together. You needed to have advice from health authorities that was backed up by political authorities. And that’s exactly what we didn’t have. Those two sides working together.
So without that clear scientific messaging, and also we don’t have a national ministry of education to create national protocols either or enforce them or fund them. And they didn’t fund them. In the absence of all that, fear really ruled the day and opening schools during a pandemic requires superhuman levels of trust.
The most important part of public health is messaging about public health. Helping people understand this is what the plan is. This is the backup plan. This is how we’re going to keep you safe. And especially when people aren’t trusting their children to a place.
So I saw it go wrong on both sides. I saw school, one of the families I followed was in rural Oklahoma. Schools opened with a remote option. Kids are going to school wearing masks that grandma crocheted. That’s a real thing.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Anya Kamenetz: And then, a place like in San Francisco, schools stayed closed for almost a year. Neither of them are good options.
Chris Riback: No, many bad options, and it seemed as well, and I felt it again. In reading your stories, there was just this dearth of nuance, the ability to see any type of gray. What does this answer that you’re giving mean about what needs to happen moving forward? You have used a couple of times the word trust. Has trust in our education system fallen irreparably? And is that happening in tandem with distrust or diminishing trust in other important institutions in areas, areas like health, political systems?
Anya Kamenetz: I think if you go by polling, the natural affinity that parents have for their public schools remains very robust. Most people think that their schools did a pretty good job, all things considered, and they’re eager to mend the fences and go back.
There’s definitely a minority that voted with their feet. Enrollment has been dropping. And that’s something that I think everyone who cares about public schools should pay attention to, especially because of the kids that are leaving and not necessarily going someplace else. So that’s a very serious problem.
I don’t think that the trust in public schools is damaged irreparably. I think that would be unfair to say. I kind of started out by talking. It gave me my spiel about how schools are this… This is a tainted phrase. But the peculiar institution. Schools are unlike anything else in our society because of the way they are grassroots, popularized, and continuously in a fight for access by every marginalized group. People want schools, they want schools to succeed, and they want their kids to succeed.
So there’s still goodwill out there. And I think that there’s a chance for leaders to raise confidence again in our public school system, but they have to show that they’re willing to meet families halfway and acknowledge what happened and how they were harmed.
Chris Riback: What did Canada do differently that there was no drop-off? I think it was in college education that you were discussing.
Anya Kamenetz: This is going to be a topic for study for people with more knowledge and background than me. I know that Canada had similarly prolonged school closures, especially in certain provinces. So it’s not a one-to-one correlation with that, so I would really point to two things. I would point to the lack of political polarization over COVID protocols, relative lack of political polarization. They have their trucker protests and that kind of thing. And their robust social safety net that stopped families from falling into poverty in the same way.
Another indicator in which Canada beat us like crazy is a suicide rate. There was a small drop in the suicide rate in the US, which is put down to what people call the pull-together effect. It was not in all categories. Unfortunately, young people of color experienced an increase in suicides in the first pandemic year. Canada had a very large drop in their suicide rate, much, much larger than in the US. So they had a much larger pull-together effect. And I would bet that you could look at these kinds of indicators and say they didn’t take the blow to the fabric of their society during the pandemic that we did.
Chris Riback: And when I hear data or insights like that, when I hear the benefits that occurred in some places but maybe not in others, it makes me think about children’s rights. Are children’s rights being violated on a mass scale on any type of a scale in the United States to this day. What should we do about that?
Anya Kamenetz: So children’s rights as a concept that I had come across in my work on digital media and learned a lot more about during the pandemic and during the reporting for The Stolen Year. It’s not a concept that you hear super often in America. And in fact, you don’t even that often hear children named as a marginalized group when people are rattling off the litany of marginalized groups out there. They’re not as likely to mention children. And the fact is that children challenge our concept of rights because they challenge our concept of citizenship because they’re not independent individuals. They don’t vote, they don’t work, and they don’t buy things.
So how do we create a system of rights? And the work is out there -it’s been done by other countries -that affirmatively protects and surrounds children with the consideration that they deserve. And especially in effort to understand from them what their interests are. I think it’s a huge area for organizing and for thinking and scholarship, and hopefully, part of the solution as we move forward from this.
Chris Riback: It’s such a litany across the whole age range, zero to college impacts. I know you know what ACEs are; adverse childhood experiences. Given what you’re saying, why is the pandemic not an adverse childhood experience? Shouldn’t we count it when assessing a child’s vulnerability to the impacts of stress on learning and behavior?
Anya Kamenetz: This is going to be a great question for empirical researchers, which I am not one. When I talked to trauma experts and ACE experts early in the pandemic, the way that they put it to me was the pandemic is like the climate crisis. It raises the temperature and raises the chances that an ACE is going to occur. That ACE might be precipitated by a parent’s unemployment. It might be having to do with losing housing. It might be hunger, even a brief period of hunger.
It might be because of this mental health crisis that’s happening. It doesn’t matter where you are socioeconomically there’s a mental health crisis with kids and teenagers. So a bout of depression, a bout of parental depression or substance use. ACEs are going to multiply because of the pandemic. And yet, we also have to be really conscious and aware to say that we’re not labeling all of these kids as something terrible happened to them. I think that there are kids who are going to be very resilient to this situation. And also, even kids that are going to experience growth from the situation.
Chris Riback: To continue your metaphor, climate change does not though necessarily impact every area equally, are we suffering from climate deniers? Do we have an understanding, general understanding accepted understanding that there’s a change going on in education, but is it a focus question? Is it a resource question? Is it a deny situation? How do we need to address it?
Anya Kamenetz: I would put focus at the top because I think that the need to sort of maintain the urgency is very strong. And I think that there is denial, denial that comes with defensiveness, and sometimes it’s optimism. But when I hear educators say, “We don’t like to talk about learning loss because it’s stigmatizing or it’s not accurate. Our kids learned a lot when they were at home.” Sure, they did, but they didn’t learn to read, and they didn’t learn age-appropriate math.
So, it doesn’t mean that you approach their home experience with the deficit model, but we have to be able to talk about what schools didn’t do because otherwise, you get backed into a corner. And I don’t think this is a common position at all, but people who say learning loss doesn’t matter, they’re very close to saying school doesn’t matter. Why does it matter if we close schools? If people have such a rich experience at home and they’re getting so much cultural knowledge and background from their families. Why do we have schools at all? That’s really the question that it bakes.
When I was at NPR in the spring, we commissioned a poll, and parents across the board, three-quarters of parents said, “My child would benefit from mental health counseling.” So there was a very strong focus on the social and emotional skills and the dispositions and the feelings that kids were having.
But most parents did not think that the pandemic had disrupted their children’s education. So there was a non-acknowledgment of their learning. And I don’t really know how to parse that except to say that parents aren’t necessarily experts in academic standards as much as they are experts in their kids’ well-being.
Chris Riback: Did we not maybe see more clearly the connections, the direct connections between emotional wellness and ability to learn constructively?
Anya Kamenetz: I do think that there’s a positive in the recognition of social-emotional needs as being central to a school’s operation, and by the way, for our teachers, as well as for students. So I hear this all the time from school leaders, we need to be protecting our teacher’s well-being because they experienced vicarious trauma and moral injury and burnout from the stresses of teaching in impossible conditions during the pandemic.
When it comes to the kids and what are parents talking about, implicitly, kids are graded on a curve. They’re compared to their age peers, and everybody went through some version of this. And so if you have a kindergarten class or a first-grade class that missed kindergarten, and they’re not holding a pen, and they’re not learning their word combination or letter combinations, you might think your kid’s doing fine because they’re doing as well as the other kids. It’s the teachers’ responsibility to really say, “These kids are not in the same place as the kids two years ago.” And maybe not enough of that conversation’s happening.
Chris Riback: That’s also a potentially scary thought because I could imagine that creating all sorts of other gaps. Maybe there’s a kid who has a certain need, deep need, but actually is able to hold the pen for whatever reason. So he is not identified. I could imagine what you’re describing as creating all sorts of new opportunities to misidentify children in need and children’s requirements.
Anya Kamenetz: I’m going to quote Debbie again, the kindergarten teacher in San Francisco. When she finally got the kids back in her classroom in April of 2021, she was like, “I’ve got these kids who fidget and they can’t sit still. They’re acting like kids might do in September, but it’s April. Is this a kid that they need to send for intervention, or is it just, they need to catch up?” And I just can’t know.
Chris Riback: Anya, as you identified, learning is so social and so embodied. Could you expand a bit on what you learned? How did education become so disembodied? So de-socialized. What did the pandemic do to teaching? And to some extent, had it kind of gone in that direction, perhaps even before the pandemic, that the connection between the importance of social and embodiment to learning had already been getting separated, or did that occur mainly during the pandemic?
Anya Kamenetz: I would argue that the need that children have to move while they’re learning and also move in between sitting still and learning had been growing. There was a lot more awareness of things like brain breaks and having different stations in the classroom and even curricula for young children that include physical motion along with the learning. So I think we’d been raised in that awareness, and it was kind of a cruel change that we suddenly condemned, especially the little kids. I feel a lot for the little kids sitting in front of a screen. We saw a huge increase in weight gain among kids because of the enforced sedentary aspect of the pandemic.
When it comes to the social aspects of learning again, I would say it was almost a counter-cultural or progressive movement within schooling that allowed for and emphasized the importance of peer learning and the relationships between teachers and students, as well as among students to help learning be relevant and help it be emotionally engaging.
This was so killed by the pandemic. There was a nationwide epidemic of kids turning off their cameras and just being disembodied voices and not engaging with teachers. And while I saw that some students were able to keep up their support networks and social media and messaging was important for that, it was hard for schools.
I had this problem with my own kids’ school when it went remote, my third grader. The kids were in the Chat, the Zoom Chat, interacting with each other and making jokes, and the teacher shut it down. And I actually emailed her. I was like, “They need to talk to each other. They want to talk to each other. They miss each other. Maybe we could have designated times for that.” And she wasn’t really responsive to that. So it was a loss of awareness of all the different things that schools do.
Chris Riback: Focusing as well on lessons learned and maybe some positive examples, some things that you’re seeing out there that maybe are working. Did you learn something new about what makes students meaningfully engaged, and potentially, are you seeing examples of meaningful engagement that are surprising or impressing you?
Anya Kamenetz: So I think both inside and outside the school setting, I am really impressed with the level of civic engagement from our youth, and they were not stopped by schools closing. So, we saw this incredible outpouring of social movement in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. And a lot of that was led by high school students. They had time to do it, and they were out there doing it.
Since then, not only with racial justice, but also we’ve seen students organizing around gun violence. We saw students organizing in the spring around mask mandates and safety at the high school level and middle school level saying, “We want more masks. We want better masks.” So this is about listening to kids’ voices. And I think that when schools are able to be aware, where they invest in relationships and they’re able to update the curriculum to match student civic concerns outside the classroom, you really get an incredible union of learning and action.
Chris Riback: So around page 315, you ask what feels to me like the pertinent question. Could we reinvent schools?
Anya Kamenetz: Yes
Chris Riback: Can we? What would it take? Should we?
Anya Kamenetz: I think that it seems like an opportune moment. There’s been a number of really interesting books out there. It sort of taking this question on. There’s a book by Cathy Davidson called The New College Classroom, which has a lot on active learning. There’s one by Michael Horn about reinventing and Seizing This Moment. And there’s one coming out with Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff where they’re applying their developmental knowledge to joyful school transformation. So I think there’s a lot of great ideas out there.
There’s money out there. The ESSR Funding, The American Rescue Plan money is barely spent. And a lot of it has been spent to kind of like on an ad hoc basis. There hasn’t been a lot of visionary transformation attached to that spending. So I think there’s an opportunity. I think that there is a lot of great ideas out there. Education always has this kind of frustrating oscillation between conservatism and progressivism.
Chris Riback: You wrote that line in the book. It’s such a great line. Yes. It’s true. I hadn’t thought about it that way until I read that from you.
Anya Kamenetz: I think there’s new ideas sometimes succeed the most when they are disguised as older ideas. I’m encouraged by the expanded awareness of the importance of social and emotional learning and just relationship building within schools. We need to know each other. We need to trust each other. You hear it in the school safety conversation, you hear it in the diversity and equity conversation, and you hear it in social, emotional learning. And it’s also true of curriculum. How can curriculum be embedded in communities and serve community needs?
Now the flip side of that is there has been a lot of hostility kind of popping up in the last year between parents and school boards and sometimes parents and teachers.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Anya Kamenetz: And certain kinds of activism that has really capitalized on the sense of betrayal, I think, it’s hard to say, like, where’s the chicken and where’s the egg because the conservative anti-school activism has a very, very long history. But you do hear some narratives of like, “My kid was home, they were on Zoom school. I couldn’t believe what I overheard the teacher saying. They’re saying stuff that’s not consonant with my values. And so, I felt radicalized by that.” So that’s a tough disconnect that really needs to be healed.
Chris Riback: There is such a split. In studying some high schools that experienced some level of thriving, students noted that strong relationships were an important factor. Given the disconnect/divide that you just were describing potentially among parents and boards or parents when they hear certain things from teachers. Can we learn from our kids?
Anya Kamenetz: One of the fundamental functions of education really going back to the founding fathers, not the constitution, because there’s no education in the constitution, but the founding father’s writings, they always believed that you needed an education system to have a democracy.
Civic citizenship requires literacy. It requires rhetoric and the ability to learn and to handle disagreement. And this is what our schools are. It’s very lazy to say that they’re a laboratory of democracy, but we have no other. This is how we learn to practice it.
So I hope that schools can be supported and strengthened to maintain that position in society. They need their leaders to protect them and to make them. Everyone hates the term, but actually, safe spaces. They need to literally be physically safe, and they need to be places where disagreement is tolerated in the spirit of open inquiry. And that’s like so much easier to say than to do. But I really trust in the humanity of the educators that I know who have learned how to teach tolerance without dictating their position to people.
Chris Riback: I must say I loved that section of your book and notes. Early on, I think it’s about 30, 40 pages in, but that little mini history you give of education, even going back, I think you started in like the 1600s and differentiating between how it was treated in different regions and the roles and then the writings from James Madison. I really liked that.
Anya Kamenetz: Thank you.
Chris Riback: …history near the beginning. A couple of challenges that I see out there one is we’ve talked about the uniqueness of each child. We’ve talked about how reactions will be necessarily different. I’m curious as to how we get past perhaps our one-size-fits-all approach to education. How do we create an environment where all children can thrive? And what it brings me to is a short and powerful line early in your book where you wrote, “And when we rebuild, there is a chance to remake.” Anya, as you consider our education system, what should we remake? And how should we remake it? Is such a remaking possible?
Anya Kamenetz: I hope that it is. I think that it is. I think that it’s never happened without a struggle. There’s always been a long struggle for inclusion and expansion to various points of view within our system. Schools have been stretched and, in some ways, weakened by the pandemic, but I also think that in trying to revert to remote learning, we understood exactly what was missing.
So if education was nothing but information transfer, then online would work perfectly. You just present the content, and the kids take it. So now we learned exactly what that leaves out, and all of the things that it leaves out- school as a place for support and school is a place for relationships, and a place for inspiration are all the things that we now are emphasizing and foregrounding, and kids have resumed their activities with so much joy. They really want to be able to have those milestones, and to have those things that we think of as extracurriculars are really kind of assuming much more importance because we missed out on them. So there’s a chance to kind of recalibrate all of that.
Honestly, I don’t want to shorthand. I mean I talked about how terrible remote learning can be, but changing our entire education system overnight was an incredible stress test and an incredible fire drill. And it did show, what they could do online.
And that’s important too because online learning can be a great supplement when it’s not made to be the whole meal. It can absolutely help accelerate. It can help differentiate. So it can help systems expand their capacity when it’s used in parallel with in-person learning. So I think that there’s lessons in that too. There’s lessons in simply the experience of having innovated, even though it was in emergency mode.
Chris Riback: I remember reading that children were not necessarily put first. They weren’t put first at the head of the line, and maybe there’s a root cause in that, we don’t have a standardized children’s rights, so maybe we’re not necessarily designed to think about putting their needs first.
Anya Kamenetz: I think that’s exactly right. Look, you could be paternalistic and stand up for children’s interests without necessarily upholding their rights. And that might lead to a better course of action as well. What we just didn’t do was we didn’t protect children in any way, and we didn’t prioritize them. I think that’s irrefutable.
Chris Riback: And I would assume that you would argue that the pandemic offers a clarion call for examining children’s rights and potentially prioritizing them.
Anya Kamenetz: I do argue that. I don’t think we can move forward from this rupture without acknowledging what we did wrong. And the first and foremost thing that we did wrong was we didn’t prioritize kids.
Chris Riback: On the other side of the coin, why didn’t we hear more about the YMCA Emergency Childcare Centers and New York City Department of Education schools for children of essential workers?
Anya Kamenetz: This is one of the limited things during the pandemic that I actually saw of my own eyes. So I was out in the early days, and I noticed that there were children going in and out of my public school on the corner. And then I ran around the corner, and I saw there was an in-home daycare where children were being dropped off. And I was like, “Huh, here we are in lockdown, but there are congregate facilities where children are being cared for.” And of course, because only a small percentage, really less than half of the workforce was actually able to work from home. There were so many essential workers.
So I was recently reading the New York Times story about school closures in March of 2020. And there was a public conversation, a serious public computation about the fact that who’s going to go to work in the hospital if we close the schools, where are those kids going to go? The kids of nurses and doctors.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Anya Kamenetz: And the answer was, they went to childcare. So New York City kept schools open as Art RECs, regional enrichment centers. They brought people out of retirement to staff them. They cared for 10,000 children during the height of the pandemic with no outbreaks, and across the country, the YMCAs stepped into the same function cared for tens of thousands of children with improvised health protocols, also, without huge numbers of outbreaks in the early days of the pandemic. This was not foregrounded because we are in the habit of making our childcare system invisible.
There was nobody there to even commend them or mention that it happened. I published a story in June of 2020. So many people were like, “I had no idea this was happening.” And if we had only imagine. If researchers had been there from day one, testing the kids and testing the protocols, by July, we would’ve had confidence in the fact that these measures were going to work.
And hopefully, we would’ve had a public conversation to say, “Your elderly people came out of retirement, who are public school employees, came out of retirement to staff this school building. Why is it that a teacher can’t come to school and do the same thing?”
Now you can say, “Okay, there were learning hubs. There were efforts across the country to open schools to the neediest, the most vulnerable kids, they were inadequate. And they were often not taken advantage of by the kids who needed them the most because of the fear that existed.”
So to me, what bridges that gap and creates the trust is the data and the findings and the publicization of the fact that it was possible. And in fact, it was happening.
Chris Riback: We learned a lot. We learned a lot about what’s possible. Anya, that would be a terrific place to leave things, if not, but for the fact that you are leaving the education beat at NPR to cover climate. What are we all to take from this?
Anya Kamenetz: It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience to be on the education beat and particularly at NPR, for the last eight years. And I learned so much, and the focus of this book, The Stolen Year, is what I have recently learned to call generational justice. How do we do right by our kids? What do we owe our kids? And to me, climate is the one issue that most urgently presents us with that question. And so what I’m trying to do, and I’m going to be doing it as a podcaster, as an advocate, as a writer, is get people confronting that question. What do we owe our kids when it comes to climate? What do they need to know about it? How can we help them be a part of the solutions, and how can we fix it for them?
Chris Riback: The follow-up to The Stolen Year, perhaps the stolen planet.
Anya Kamenetz: I’ll take that one. I like that.
Chris Riback: That’s yours. Anya, thank you. Thanks for your time. Thank you for the work and the characters that you brought to life, the history, the insights. It was a terrific read. I’m grateful to you for discussing it with us.
Anya Kamenetz: Thank you so much for reading it so carefully and so kindly and helping put it in perspective for your listeners.
Chris Riback: Thank you.
More from Turnaround on this topic:
- Todd Rose: How ‘Collective Illusions’ Hold Back Education — and How We Can Fix Them
- Pamela Cantor, M.D.: 7 Tips for Talking to Children about Ukraine
- Renee Prince: Educators as First Responders to the Youth Mental Health Crisis
- Pamela Cantor, M.D.: State of Emergency in Adolescent Mental Health
- Student Voices: Fighting for an Inclusive Education System
- LaShawn Routé Chatmon and Kathleen Osta: What Is an Equitable Learning Environment and How Can Your School Build One?