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The new book 'The Stolen Year' details how the pandemic disrupted children's lives

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In 2020, when the pandemic spread, Anya Kamenetz was covering education for NPR News. Schools closed. Many shifted to remote learning for up to a year. Anya covered it all and now sums up what her reporting also showed in real time. Extended closings were a calamity for education. And she says they may not even have saved many lives.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: The United States kept more of its schools and more of its students home longer than any other wealthy country and at the same time is currently boasting the highest per capita death rate from COVID of any wealthy country.

INSKEEP: The U.S. could have opened schools while keeping restaurants closed. Instead, many places kept schools closed while reopening restaurants. All along, Kamenetz was interviewing affected students.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I could not stand being home doing work because, like, we have, like, 14 people in one house. And, like, half of those people are kids. I just couldn't focus.

INSKEEP: That 16-year-old tried to study at home while also supervising younger kids. This 16-year-old said she couldn't sleep for days.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Everything is hard because there's no end to it. It just - it's really sad to, like, see what was supposed to be, like, the best years of your life, like, go down the tubes.

INSKEEP: More than a year later, standardized tests show that many kids have not recovered. Anya Kamenetz has now collected the stories of parents and kids in a book called "The Stolen Year." And when we talked, she said her sources described this disaster before it happened.

KAMENETZ: I would love to take you back, Steve, to a conversation that you and I had in April, 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: Anya Kamenetz of NPR's education team has been asking what past events are relevant.

KAMENETZ: I talked to people I knew who had studied school closures and their impacts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KAMENETZ: At a time. You're looking at the Rwandan genocide. You're looking at Syrian refugees, Rohingya refugees.

And the evidence was all there. We talked about how kids were at risk for toxic stress, missing - learning that any kind of continuity effort, any kind of remote learning was actually going to magnify inequality because some kids would have a better ability to take advantage of remote learning than others and that kids would drift out of school and into paid work if they were teenagers.

INSKEEP: So authorities knew the problem and had to judge which was worse, the risk of COVID or the risk of educational calamity? European nations began reopening by the late spring of 2020, saying they put kids first. In the United States, political division and distrust prevented that.

KAMENETZ: Because I think we heard a lot from President Trump about how important it was to open schools. But we didn't see responses, particularly from people who were on the other side politically. In fact, it was shown that the more likely a county or district was to go for Biden in the 2020 election, the more likely that county was to stay closed for longer and to keep up restrictions like masking. So you know, something's wrong when political affiliation, not case rates, not demographics, is the leading indicator of whether a district is opening or not.

INSKEEP: People did not trust the people who were telling them it was OK to reopen the schools?

KAMENETZ: That is exactly right. And the lack of trust was on so many levels, Steve. I mean, you think about kind of the legacy that we have of, how do communities of color, for instance, in large cities relate to their public schools, you know? Patricia Stamper, who's a teacher and a mother in Washington, D.C., talked to me about being a teacher in a pre-K classroom in D.C. public schools before the pandemic watching rats run over the children as they napped. And so are you going to trust that district to run these incredibly complicated health protocols? Are you going to trust them with your life? That's what it came down to for a lot of people.

INSKEEP: Was there also a failure of public health experts here to speak frankly?

KAMENETZ: I think we have to look at public health experts, and not to diminish the difficulty of the job that they were trying to do in this incredibly fast-moving situation. But the World Health Organization and the European equivalent of the CDC spoke very strongly and clearly in favor of opening schools. And our CDC did not speak in the same full-throated way about balancing the needs of children with the need to control the pandemic.

INSKEEP: You just said an important thing when you talked about balancing the needs of children with the need to control the pandemic. This is a complicated decision. You're taking a risk one way or another. And if you're a public health official, you may decide that the risk of educational loss is greater than the risk of COVID for kids, even if some kids may well get sick. In other contexts, public health experts were willing to make that judgment. They very famously in 2020 said it was OK to protest racial injustice because the cause was more important than the risk of COVID. Why was it so hard for them to focus on schools the same way?

KAMENETZ: I think it has a little bit to do with sort of the moral place of children in our society. There is such an instinct to protect children. And that's very good, right? We don't want to think about any harm coming to children. And dealing with an unknown risk really pushed us toward the precautionary principle. But where I think that went too far was in our lack of awareness of just how many functions schools were providing for the outrageously high number of children in this country who don't get their basic needs met at home.

INSKEEP: Was it easier to keep a lot of schools closed longer because the most elite people, the ones who have the most power in society, had kids that were doing fine because they had other resources?

KAMENETZ: You know, that's a super complicated question because as it turned out, the parents who were most vocal about reopening schools were characterized by oftentimes being whites and more affluent. And communities of color and lower income communities were not as vocal about the need to reopen schools. So the political dimensions of this did not break down the way you might expect it. The Open Schools movement, as it's called, consisted of parents oftentimes who were angry that schools were not available. And they had very serious concerns about their kids. And I think that a lot of the parents in that community feel that their needs were really dismissed and that they were told that they were, you know, just wanting to go to yoga or that they were being racist when they asked for schools to reopen. So it was a very, very divided political landscape. And, frankly, it still is. I mean, we still have a lot of parents out there who are angry about things like mask mandates for preschool. Many of them are self-styled progressives, democratic voters, believe in science, have their children vaccinated, but feel that it's unfair that these restrictions were placed on children when literally nobody else had to do them.

INSKEEP: Even if it was a mistake to keep the schools closed so long, do you think that most kids will overcome that?

KAMENETZ: I think it's time for adults to take a good, hard look at what we did and exactly what kids need to come back. But it is not automatic. And it is going to take a concerted effort on the part of schools, communities, mental health professionals to get kids back on track.

INSKEEP: Anya Kamenetz is a former NPR education correspondent and author of the new book "The Stolen Year." Thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILLY GONZALES' "KENASTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.