Q&A: Education reporter Anya Kamenetz on COVID failures & students’ Stolen Year
Kevin Mahnken | September 1, 2022
At the moment in March 2020 when American schools were transitioning to remote instruction — around the time when people were making jokes about Corona beer and commentators still mused about spending two weeks to “flatten the curve” — Anya Kamenetz was making calls.
Kamenetz had spent years covering the heaviest stories on the education beat as an award-winning reporter at NPR, from the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans classrooms to the potential risks of excessive screen time. And according to her sources, the coming pandemic wasn’t just going to drive down math scores or disrupt the teaching profession: Prolonged school closures would leave a mark on child safety, mental health and social development.
The months that followed, shaped by academic stagnation and political division, frame Kamenetz’s new book, The Stolen Year. Released Tuesday by PublicAffairs, the volume reads like a reckoning with the predictions made by the experts she consulted more than two years ago. Each chapter examines a facet of social policy in America that was fundamentally challenged by the emergence of COVID-19, from the courts system to K-12 schools, and the effects that were felt by tens of millions of children.
And how much of her sources’ collective warning was validated?
“All of it,” she said.
Much of the social toll, measured in deaths or distance or deterioration of services, was unavoidable. But Kamenetz argues that the failure of online learning, and of in-person schools to reopen faster in thousands of districts, was also highly contingent — on leaders’ failure to adjust during the fateful summer of 2020, but also on experts and members of the media, whose message to the public was too often muddled. Though every Western country had to scramble to come to grips with a once-in-a-lifetime public health emergency, few kept children out of school longer than the United States. And virtually none were as divided in their political and policy responses.
Kamenetz observed those responses as a veteran journalist, but also as a mother of young children and a parent in New York City, where the official response to COVID was often scattershot. That experience “complicated” her view of public schooling in this country, she confided.
“I very much understand the perspective of people who feel betrayed by public schools, wherever they’re coming from politically,” she said. “There’s been such a fraying of the consensus around what is really our major piece of social infrastructure for families.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kevin Mahnken: What’s it been like reporting on the pandemic for over two years, including writing this book, as both a veteran education reporter and a mother of young kids?
Anya Kamenetz: Over that weekend after March 13, the day that schools started to close, I was trying to confirm a coronavirus case in my child’s school, which I was then going to report to WNYC [New York City’s public radio station] and NPR. It’s not regular for reporters to report on their own kids’ schools, but this was obviously of import.
For a couple of weeks, I’d been covering the college shutdowns in Asia and then in the U.S., which were a precursor to the K-12 shutdowns here. But when de Blasio made the call to shut down schools — which he did, with his characteristic leadership, very late on a Sunday night after saying he wouldn’t do it — that was really the beginning of it for me. And I knew it was going to be a very big deal because I had not only been at NPR for six years at that point, but I’d covered [Hurricane] Katrina, which I believed would be a decent parallel: You have this society-wide catastrophe, and within that, kids are pulled out of school amid all this instability and trauma. The impacts of that were devastating, and the empirically measured effects on young people in New Orleans were still there 10 years later.
So my job was to document what was happening, and it was a very special position to be in with my skills and prior research. I also had an interest in refugee education and what is called “education in emergencies.” So my contacts in international development circles were some of the first people I called up to ask, “How’s this gonna go? What should I be looking out for?” And everything they told me panned out.
You’re originally from New Orleans, right?
Your instinctive Katrina comparisons have unfortunately proven accurate — test score data from NWEA shows that learning loss during the pandemic is pretty comparable to the damage suffered by students in New Orleans after the hurricane.
From what I can tell, it’s actually worse. The latest NWEA data indicates that the average elementary student is on track to recover in three years; for Katrina, it was two years. And after Katrina, those kids went back to “better schools” — better funded schools, certainly, and schools that achieve higher test scores.
That’s not what we’re seeing here. In the July 2022 NWEA study, it found that middle schoolers weren’t making any gains. We don’t even have a trajectory for them.
The predictions in the research pointed me to the conclusion that high school students were the ones to worry about because they were on a course to separate from school. It’s not a question of catching up, it’s a question of whether they were going to stay in school. That is something we should worry about, especially with college-going dropping the way it has.
Getting back to the early guidance offered by your international sources: How many of their predictions panned out?
All of it panned out.
The idea that young people would go into paid work and that young girls would become caregivers; that the impact of school closures would match underlying inequalities in society, and that children who were privileged enough would see no difference; that continuity efforts to keep learning on-track — this stuff goes back to World War II, for instance, when the BBC had its own children’s service that carried school broadcasts — don’t reach everyone, and in fact multiply inequality because the kids who can benefit from those efforts are already advantaged. All of that was exactly what we saw.
Those insights were remarkably prescient. In my own reporting, there were also some dogs that didn’t bark, most notably some early coverage on the possibility of a Great Recession-type crunch on school finances.
That’s right. There was a short-term spike in child hunger — it could have been two or three months — and we have to remember that even one month of increased hunger is very bad. But kids actually finished the end of the year with money in their pockets, so the economic picture is a little complicated. And there wasn’t the kind of housing crisis that left huge percentages of kids homeless, which is something that can happen after natural disasters.
In fact, if you get into the literature, you can see that between unemployment and CARES Act money, families spent more time at home with their kids. There’s obviously a segment of society that doesn’t have paid leave. Patricia [one of several parents profiled in The Stolen Year], who’s a mom in D.C. with two kids, worked in D.C. Public Schools; she had her child prematurely in July and then went back to work in August. So during the pandemic, it was the only time she was able to be home with her children. As hard as it was, she saw the advantage in it.
What comes through in the book is that there was a lot of contingency, particularly in those first pandemic months. Do you think there was a way that the initial COVID wave could have been handled better by education authorities, either at the local, state, or federal levels. Could things have gone significantly better than they did?
School closures were sort of handled in the spirit of President Trump when he said, “We’ve got to shut this whole thing down until we figure out what the hell’s going on.” They were not controversial in that early wave because it was happening all over the world, and people really needed a handle on what was happening. The first big mistake was not making a plan, as soon as we shut them down, of how we were going to open them back up.
We had this false idea about a two-week turnaround, and people really froze and didn’t plan for the future. If you’re on this beat, you know that schools start planning for staffing and scheduling in the next academic year by April. And that was when schools in parts of Europe started reopening, in April and May. They were like, “This is truly an emergency measure, and we’re going to treat it as such. We’re not going to let it continue through inertia because if districts don’t have clear leadership and messaging, they’re not going to respond.” And that’s what we saw here.
It’s unclear to me what the academic effects were of not reopening schools to finish out the 2019-2020 school year, as opposed to the extended virtual learning that took place the following year. I suspect the bigger impact was the precedent of closing through the end of the year, which seemed to set us on a course toward virtual learning being the accepted way to deal with this.
I agree completely. The effect of reopening in May 2020 would have been to put the training wheels on and get everyone onboard with the fact that this was going to happen. It was described to me by a teacher in Florida who went back into the classroom in 2020. She was like, “I know colleagues who stayed home with medical exemptions, and when they came back, they were terrified. So I said, ‘Listen, it’s not that big a deal, we’re doing this.”
What was absent was the comfort of everyday routine, and the sense of control that teachers can have when they have protocols. By not opening in the spring of 2020, we made it that much harder. And there was a slice of schools in blue states that didn’t open up until February, March, April 2021, and it got harder and harder the longer they waited.
It seems like what set the U.S. apart was the diversity of local responses we saw in the summer and fall of 2020. Of course, there wasn’t a ton of clear federal guidance, and God knows if blue states and districts would have taken that from the Trump administration, but it yielded this fractured approach to reopening and public health measures that carries on to this day.
Writing the book, I felt compelled to do this deep dive into the history of our public school system. Because it’s very different from our peer countries, which have a national system and a national curriculum and a minister of education who actually runs the schools. Instead of that, we have all these different districts.
All of which is to say that there was an absence of guidance from the top, but also an absence of data collection. I covered a study from Spain in September 2020, which tracked case rates by region. Every region had all the same protocols. After schools reopened, cases went up in one region, down in another region, and stayed flat in some others. So they released this paper and said, “We don’t think what you’re doing in schools is making a big difference, please carry on.” The CDC didn’t release an equivalent paper until, like, January !
Where was the information? Burbio — this mom-and-pop data company that was started for totally different reasons — became the nation’s go-to source for what schools are doing because the federal government just wasn’t tracking and releasing enough information.
You mentioned Bill de Blasio’s sort of tortured initial move to close schools in New York City, which attracted a lot of criticism. But from the distance of two-plus years, I suspect that many observers wish that districts had been more deliberate in shuttering schools and keeping them shuttered, even if that’s clearly a case of Monday morning quarterbacking.
That’s right. More forward-thinking, more innovative leadership could have gone a long way. And as frustrating as it often was to live in de Blasio’s city, it’s worth remembering that of the big blue cities, they opened schools up first. Though they had really bad uptake of hybrid [learning] because it was untenable from a child care perspective, and also because they delayed reopening twice.
People don’t understand that there’s a dynamic between parent trust and how you communicate the decisions you’re making. The more you hem and haw and quibble over things, the harder it is for parents to actually trust that you’re going to do the things you say you’re going to do. One lesson from this period is that being a bad communicator is a problem in and of itself.
The consequences of that miscommunication and opacity in decision-making are already being felt politically, with school board members enduring a wave of recall attempts and Democrats losing ground on the issue of K-12 education. I’m wondering if your own levels of trust in political leaders and education authorities have diminished.
The process of reporting this book has complicated my view of public schooling.
That’s a pretty broad thing to say, but basically: I thought of public schooling as a public good and something that needed to be freely available to all people, and I still think that. But I also very much understand the perspective of people who feel betrayed by public schools, wherever they’re coming from politically — whether they think public schools are racist, or that they’re not representing their family’s point of view, or whatever. There’s been such a fraying of the consensus around what is really our major piece of social infrastructure for families. In terms of the classic dynamic of exit-voice-loyalty, a lot of parents feel like they were forced to exit.
Of course, time will tell. There’s a powerful pull back to normal, and some families are changing what they’re doing. You see a lot of expressions of relief about coming back [to school]. But from what I understand of the latest AEI report, both politically red districts and districts that reopened sooner — those are often one and the same — are reporting a rebound in enrollment. Politically blue districts, and those that opened up later or kept mask mandates in place, are continuing to lose students, which is what we’re seeing in New York City. That’s more important than what people say in polls, I think.
I take your point that school closures were mostly uncontroversial when they were first enacted. From my recollection, the point where some of this dissatisfaction began to set in was in fall 2020. According to Burbio data you cite in the book, 42 percent of students returned to all-remote schools that September.
I actually think it’s more. The federal government released a report in February 2021 breaking things down schools by what they offered: in-person, fully remote, or hybrid. But we know that within the in-person and hybrid categories, there were also families that chose remote instruction. In that study, around half of all students were still fully remote that February, so it’s pretty safe to say that a majority of kids were in remote-only schools in fall of 2020; probably only about one-third had an in-person option.
In New York City, to my knowledge, about one-third of kids were actually showing up to school at that time. And that was an “open district.”
Okay, that’s an important caveat. Whatever the exact figure was, massive numbers of kids didn’t have the option of attending school in-person, even months after some comparable countries had fully switched back. Why?
They had not planned to come back in-person. There was a statement by Gov. Gavin Newsom in summer of 2020 about potentially opening up for summer schools; as we know, California schools didn’t reopen until spring 2021. So they just didn’t do the planning necessary. We might also say that states didn’t have the necessary resources in terms of public health tracking and contact tracing. I spoke to a woman employed as a contract tracer in New Jersey, and her experience in that job was why she didn’t send her kid to school. She was like, “This isn’t working.”
The testing also wasn’t in place in 2020, and obviously, there was opposition from people who didn’t believe their workplace was going to be safe. Some of the opposition came in the form of bringing cardboard coffins to marches and saying that children were going to die. That was not supported by the evidence, but it was scary.
The messaging was very heated on both sides of the reopening debate. What I don’t really remember was a more dispassionate accounting that weighed the legitimate public health concerns of both families and school employees against the legitimate educational and social needs of kids.
Absolutely. That was not done. And we can see that from the fact that there was no real attempt to triage the situation.
San Francisco tried to do this. They said, “We have lists of kids who are in foster care, kids who are in substandard housing, kids who are recent immigrants, and kids who are disabled, and we’re going to prioritize them for inclusion in learning hubs.” Okay, great. But they only created half of the hub spaces they said they would. The failure is in not balancing what you’ve articulated as important needs, and instead allowing chaos in the market to take place instead of those things.
You mentioned child care, which was a troubled industry even before the pandemic. In the book, you memorably refer to a “laser maze” of obstacles to access care. What did the pandemic teach us about how the United States provides services in this area?
The pandemic made it really obvious that we have no infrastructure for care in this country, and in fact, it would be exaggerating to call it a system. There’s been research showing that a certain percentage of child care providers use their own food stamps to feed kids in their care because our subsidy system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.
We also learned that it’s essential infrastructure, and people can’t go to work without child care. What we rely on for young kids is a gradient of unpaid and underpaid care. COVID made a certain amount of people recognize that, and I was very happy to see some of these ideas [for child care and pre-K subsidies] in Congress. But seeing them yanked away in this version of the Inflation Reduction Act is really disheartening and makes you ask what it’s going to take for politicians to change this.
Among the big priorities the Biden administration wanted to address in January 2021 — and even including some that weren’t big priorities then, like inflation — most have been acted upon. Not child care or pre-K.
Yeah. Political theorists would probably say that the climate movement pushed their issue to the top of the agenda. Health care for seniors has always been a win for politicians, and there’s a clear constituency of people who vote a lot on that issue. But when do moms have time to march? When can they crowd into Nancy Pelosi’s office and make it unavoidable for this to change? I’d love dads to do this too, but my point is that it takes organizing.
We both cover education research. How do you grade the performance of education experts and policy specialists, many of whom gained big microphones over the last few years? You brought up Burbio, which I definitely hadn’t heard of before 2020, but I was thinking of figures like Brown University economist Emily Oster: people who were not affiliated with government but took it upon themselves to gather what information was available and communicate it to the public.
That question is going to be the subject of a lot of research and reflection going forward: How does this ability to speak directly to the public affect how research is conducted, how it’s publicized and how it shapes public opinion?
We talked about the vacuum of guidance from the federal government in the early stages of COVID, which kind of distorted the whole information ecosystem. And then the virus kept changing in really uncertain ways such that Omicron acted differently than Delta, which acted differently from the first wave. People really wanted certainty, and there wasn’t certainty to be found, so it was a foregone conclusion that people peddling reassurance were going to get a lot of attention.
Do you have anyone specific in mind?
[Laughs] I think it’s true across the board. There were COVID hawks that got a lot of attention, and there were “let’s forget about it” types who got way too much attention. There were people funding researchers to say that everything was fine and we should just be Sweden and never close anything. Honestly, I was lucky to be in a reporting organization that had standards of neutrality. We really thought hard about the impact our stories would have on the public, and it was a good thing to be in conversation with my audience.
My previous book was about screen time, which is a hotly contested area without as much data as you’d like. It’s also a situation that’s always changing because new forms of media emerge. Something I found very useful during the pandemic was just being able to fairly convey that truth to parents that just want information to navigate their day. You have to be very clear about what you don’t know and how to make a decision depending on what your specific concerns are.
I think that was why someone like Emily Oster got so popular. Her biggest post wasn’t telling people what to do, it was a framework for making decisions.
For me, the urgent need for information made the pandemic a unique period of connection between reporters and readers. I imagine you were getting a ton of feedback, both positive and negative, from parents on Twitter as the various COVID debates raged on.
The uncertainty was so excruciating that it led people to retreat to their corners and take refuge in what their tribe was doing. That’s why there was this subset of people who were like, “I’m a liberal mom who thinks my toddler shouldn’t have to wear a mask anymore. But people hate me for that and think that I’m a Trump supporter.”
Because it was so polarized, it was very hard to deal with these gaps. Or sometimes there weren’t even gaps! It was more like, “You have a child with a speech impediment, but we have a grandparent at home, so our concerns are different.” There was a need to give people a little more grace.
I’d add that we’re education reporters, not science reporters, and when we had to call up epidemiologists to get your story, there was a lot of caution around that. It was hard for a lot of reporters, and that led to gaps in coverage: We were comfortable talking about what was happening academically but not as comfortable talking about public health. For that, we really listened to the health experts, and the priority of the health experts was preventing even one case of COVID. With a little more confidence, we could have taken a broader view and said, “We might be reducing COVID spread by x amount, but what’s happening to these kids at home?”
This wasn’t even a phenomenon restricted to the education press. In spring 2020, you could get the feeling that the only relevant expertise was in health. It almost would have been strange if reporters didn’t become deferential around experts in that field.
“Deferential” is the exact right word. And the solution for it was for education reporters to stay in our lane and report on what was happening to kids. I realized early on that NPR didn’t have a child care beat; we didn’t have a child welfare reporter, so we didn’t really know what was happening as far as kids getting abused and not being flagged by a mandatory reporter.
We just had a schools desk with three reporters for the whole country, and one was doing higher ed. That wasn’t enough to cover what was happening to kids, particularly when schools were closed.
It takes so long to pitch, write, and edit a book like this. I’m curious how much changed after you submitted your first draft to the publisher, and if you had to rewrite a lot of this as conditions on the ground evolved.
I would say that trend lines basically continued, but the closures of the Omicron winter really impacted learning in 2021-22 — so much so that I don’t think it’s really fair to call it a recovery year. The amount of closures and quarantining and chronic absenteeism were too grave to say there was a huge amount of recovery, as opposed to just creeping back to normal.
The school leaders I know are just beginning to contemplate what a full, normal year might look like, and the CDC guidance is being framed accordingly. They’re very clear now — now — in saying that kids should be in school at all costs. In that way, Ifeel like public opinion and people’s experiences have evolved to the point that they’re ready to have this conversation. And I hope we do have it; I hope we don’t rush to saying, “Why aren’t you over that yet?” or, “There’s a huge achievement gap, why haven’t these kids caught up yet?” Like, let’s not forget what happened here.
So is it possible for 2022-23 to be the first post-COVID year? And what’s it going to take to make that happen?
I do think it’s possible. But in order for that to happen, we need to be clear-eyed about what has already happened. It’s a little frustrating to see schools lurching from crisis to crisis, and there’s a crisis rhetoric around schools that doesn’t always match reality. We’re hearing about a teacher shortage, for instance, but there were teacher shortages before the pandemic. And also, schools are listing a lot more vacancies; it’s not so much a shortage as schools trying to hire more people.
So there is a chance for recovery. In order for there to be recovery, schools need to do what they say they’re going to do in their [American Rescue Plan] plans and not lose sight of their responsibility to help the most vulnerable and the kids who lost out the most in this pandemic.
The premise of your book was that a year of learning was stolen; what needs to be done to restore what was lost?
You have to hear, without interrupting, what harm was suffered. You hear what kids went through. And then you try to give them back what they lost. That’s going to take time, but it can be done. A wonderful thing about children is that they have time, and the investment you make today will pay off many times in the future. We just need to give them that chance.