The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children's Lives, and Where We Go Now, by Anya Kamenetz, PublicAffairs, 352 pages, $17.99
Twelve years after he was acquitted of murder, O.J. Simpson and a ghostwriter penned a book called If I Did It. I was reminded of that when The Stolen Year arrived on my doorstep. A chronicling of the horrors wrought by COVID policies that kept American kids from their school buildings and childhood milestones for more than a year, this book was written by someone at the scene of the crime, intimate with the gory details, and ultimately uninterested in reckoning with who was responsible for it. This is a whodunnit without a culprit.
As The Stolen Year's title implies, a crime was perpetrated on U.S. children during the pandemic—one that "increase[d] inequality and destroy[ed] individual hopes and dreams," one whose "impact can be measured for a generation," in author Anya Kamenetz's words.
Kamenetz, an NPR education reporter, is highly credentialed and well-informed. But if the pandemic taught us anything, it's that degrees and area expertise don't necessarily lead people to good decisions or sound interpretations of data. Knowing the facts was not synonymous with having the courage to buck the pressure to padlock playgrounds.
There were signs in Kamenetz's reporting that she understood that the risks of opening schools were being exaggerated and the harms of closures downplayed. (I frequently shared her early reporting on YMCAs safely opening for children of essential workers.) Despite that, she admits that she and her colleagues largely missed the biggest story in the modern education beat's history.
"It was all easy to predict," she told The Grade. "So we could have been a lot louder."
They could have been louder. NPR and other national news outlets were not chock-full of stories about the ways remote learning exacerbated existing inequities. Public radio didn't send warnings in its sonorous tones commensurate with what Kamenetz knew was generational damage, hitting poor and minority students hardest. It didn't extensively profile the politically and ethnically diverse coalition of parents who fought for a year to open urban and suburban schools' doors. It didn't press large districts and teachers union leaders about their insistence on staying closed while the rest of the world opened safely. (COVID policies closed many American schools for 58 weeks, compared with 33 in Finland, 27 in China and the U.K., 11 in Japan, and even fewer in Denmark and Sweden.)
Kamenetz's reporting on the pain families endured in 2020 and 2021 in remote learning is rich and affecting. From rural Oklahoma to New York City, we meet kids who battled fear, depression, boredom, and learning loss; we meet single moms cut off first from income, then from the food for their kids that was formerly available in schools.
These stories of American families juggling loss of routine, child care, therapy services, and more are the most worthwhile part of this book. Their stories were always important and, as Kamenetz belatedly notes, predictable. Jonah in San Francisco, diagnosed with autism, became violent after hours of school screen time while the city closed the skate park he frequented; Alexis in Hawaii, a nonverbal child who regressed into diapers when deprived of in-person services; Khamla, who was removed from his family's home over allegations of abuse and neglect. All predictable.
"It seemed like depraved indifference to children's welfare," Kamenetz writes in 2022. It did.
These were the stories that parents in Facebook groups and school board Zoom meetings were desperately telling their local bureaucrats and teachers unions as they fought to get schools opened. For their efforts, they were called heartless, ignorant, and elitist. The Department of Justice famously sent a memo pegging vociferous activism as worthy of investigation. I guess they got a little too loud.
A school board member in Alexandria, Virginia, whose tone was typical of the overwrought official response, asked parents: "Do you want your child to be alive, or do you want your child to be educated?" The Chicago Teachers Union tweeted (and later deleted) that the fight for school openings was "rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny," even as parents rightly argued that school closures were widening all the gaps the same set claims to care about between white students and minorities, rich and poor. Those who had or made the resources and time to fight were reviled as privileged yoga moms who wanted their babysitters back.
Yet, this book is all alarm-raising and no reckoning, two years too late. Reading this book in 2022 from a major media reporter who could have corrected the narrative in real time feels like Adam Sandler's lament in The Wedding Singer after being jilted by his fiancee at the altar: "Once again, things that could have been brought to my attention yesterday!"
Perhaps it is uncharitable to compare the author to '90s villains like O.J. or the wedding singer's vapid fiancee. But it takes her only 35 pages to get around to comparing people like me, public school moms forced to abandon the system by dysfunctional COVID policies that left us with zero instruction for months, to Buchananites and segregationists. All because we favor school choice policies and homeschooling options that other parents can access when public institutions abandon them and insult parents for complaining about it.
In the lexicon of The Stolen Year, public schools have critics, "like the members of marginalized groups who want them to do better," and "enemies," like us school-choicers, who allegedly "uphold systemic inequities."
Meanwhile, the book assures us that there is no need to "relitigate this mess or point fingers." Teachers unions are mentioned maybe five times, union chief Randi Weingarten twice. Their image as "puppet masters" is declared inaccurate, despite evidence of Weingarten's deep involvement in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's reopening guidelines that served to keep schools closed. It's left to a progressive nonprofit leader in Oakland to say, "We gotta take a long and hard look at union agreements which uphold a status quo where our kids can't fucking read!"
COVID denial on the right was a problem, but unscientific policies that kept schools closed in blue America were just more victims of "polarized…cacophony that made it difficult for scientific authorities to be heard." Who's to say who's to blame for the American Academy of Pediatrics' fateful about-face on in-person schooling over two weeks in 2020? Blame the "cacophony," not dereliction of duty in the political winds.
When Kamenetz doles out blame, it is reserved for Donald Trump, for America, for stingy wrong-thinking legislators, for underfunding, for systemic racism.
As we chart a path out of this mess, Kamenetz has one prescription. Her book is full of examples of public institutions failing, yet her answer is more public institutions with more resources. An emblematic passage pitches a more expansive Head Start program—the federally funded service for children under 5 that is free for those at the poverty line—as a solution to the problem of unaffordable child care in America. A paragraph later, Kamenetz notes that "the vast majority of Head Start centers closed as of March 24, 2020 and remained closed in many cases throughout the spring and fall, leaving the neediest children in the country without childcare."
In contrast, we have the private, church-based Hope Day School administrator working around the clock to read scientific studies and guidance in order to keep her doors open. A Dallas parent and emergency room doctor told Kamenetz the school gave her more consistent child care and communication than the public school system did. There is no exploration of why this might be the case, why private schools were willing and able to stay open blocks from public schools that never tried, or why we had the galling practice of hosting physical learning hubs for Zoom school inside public schools. There is almost no credit given to red states that got school policy right, thereby acting as—dare I say it?—a bulwark against increasing inequity, or how blue states might do better risk analysis in the future.
And the moms who stood up to reopen schools? They are not among those profiled, but Kamenetz has thoughts on such activism. She chides "women with more economic and political power…choosing not to leverage that power in the interests of women with less of it"—and then, later, knocks the privilege of women who "formed emergency committees to open the schools." So good luck with that, ladies.
The Stolen Year is right about the science that would have allowed public schools in blue America to open, and it's right about the terrible consequences of ignoring it. This is welcome—and coming from an NPR reporter, it might convince liberals who would otherwise reject the idea that their leaders caused massive increases in historic inequities. If only it had come sooner and much louder.