Transcript: Anya Kamenetz
My interview with the education reporter and author
When schools were closed at the beginning of the pandemic, we did not have a robust public debate.
The issue, unfortunately, was politicized — and it has only been recently, with the data now emerging, that a mainstream conversation has been possible.
Back in 2020, my guest on the podcast today warned what school closures could mean for children, and particularly for the most vulnerable kids.
Anya Kamenetz is a former education reporter for NPR. Her new book is The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children’s Lives, And Where We Go Now.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Anya, welcome to Lean Out.
AK: Thanks so much for having me.
TH: Thank you for coming on today. This is such an important topic. I think this is a book that many people have been waiting for. You reported on the aftermath of Katrina as a young reporter. So you had an idea what was coming with the school closures — perhaps more than many in the mainstream media. You did a piece for NPR early on, warning about the impacts of school closures. What did we know back then?
AK: Research from the aftermath of Katrina — which is more than 15 years in the past now — as well as from all over the world, when schools shut down during social catastrophes, like pandemics and wars, shows that when children lose that central place in their lives, that stable place, it’s about far more than learning. Learning, of course, can take a lot of time to recover, even with a short closure. But we also really worry about kids’ safety, and some of the basic services that schools provide. As well as just the contact with caring adults. Of course we want the family and the household to be this essential place in kids’ lives, and most of the time it absolutely is. But teachers and the caring adults in schools are such an important conduit of children’s development, as well as their peers.
TH: Set the stage for us. Where I live in Toronto, there were four school closures, for about 28 weeks in total. Speaking about the U.S. generally — I know it was a patchwork— but how widespread were the school closures in the U.S.?
AK: The United States kept our schools closed longer, to more children, than anywhere else in the developed world. We averaged about 58 weeks of closures. That meant that more than half — particularly of Black and Hispanic children — were out of school for more than a calendar year.
TH: Wow. I want to tease some of the threads here. This book is deeply researched and reported. We’ll just dip into a few of the topics, to give listeners an idea of the widespread suffering that these closures cause for children. Let’s first talk about hunger. What did school closures do to child hunger in America?
AK: In the United States, the school food program is the second largest public food program. And so when it switched to giving out sandwiches in parking lots, child hunger spiked to levels that researchers are really not used to seeing. We saw 17.5 percent of parents of young children saying not only the parents, but the children, are not getting enough to eat — in April and May 2020. And those elevated levels persisted all the way through December 2020, as cash relief was getting out to families. So this is really unprecedented. We know that hunger can have lifelong impacts. It has an impact on mental health, as well as children’s physical and brain development.
TH: You cite a statistic in the book that in 2013, the share of public school students in low-income households crossed 50 percent. What did school closures mean for children living in poverty — perhaps in homes without electronic devices and reliable Internet connections? As you point out, in Oakland alone, for instance, at least five thousand students didn’t have computers.
AK: Yeah. There was a massive effort to get computers and Internet hotspots out to students all over the country, in rural areas and urban areas where there’s under-connectedness. But that lack of connectivity really persisted, basically as long as remote learning persisted. Because it’s not just about the bandwidth; it’s also about having a quiet space to learn. If you have more than one sibling who’s trying to get on a device at the same time … Even in places where you have broadband Internet, it could be hard to have multiple people on Zoom at the same time. So, the technical problems are really tough. And I think that people realized that. They knew that there was going to be technical problems with remote learning. But we didn’t really think about what that would mean if that was children’s only option to access learning for such a long period of time.
TH: I want to spend a moment on the children of single mothers. You tell a really powerful story in the book about a child called the Habersham. Can you briefly tell us that story?
AK: Absolutely. All over the country there were children whose parents were essential workers, who had no options when school shut down and when childcare shut down. Heather was a mother raising eight children in St. Louis, and her seven-year-old son one day got out. She was working at a homeless shelter, so she didn’t have a job that she could do from home. She didn’t have anywhere safe to leave her kids, and she admitted to sometimes locking the door on her kids when she had to go to work. Habersham, one day, wandered off. He climbed in the window of an abandoned building in his neighborhood with two other friends and a man inside that building shot them. He shot Habersham in the leg and his friend in the wrist.
TH: And Habersham was seven when this happened?
AK: He was seven years old. It was just a couple of months into the school shutdowns in May 2020. Thankfully, he recovered. Obviously it was traumatic. And there was no recourse. I mean, there was no way to get, apparently, the services that that family needed in the city at that time.
TH: How are they doing now?
AK: The last time I was in touch with one of his older siblings, they were still in their housing — which they have been fearing losing. Heather was looking for a new job. That’s basically the last that I heard.
TH: There’s so many issues to dig in to here. Another one is children’s mental health, which we are starting to hear more and more data come out on. In June of 2020, you got the first of many emails from the public. This first one was from a psychologist, Lisa Damour saying, “The kids are not alright.” What do we know about the impacts of school closures on children’s mental health?
AK: It’s been devastating. It’s been devastating all over the world, and across class lines as well. So, what happened when kids lost that social outlet — the place where they see their friends, as well as caring adults — was an incredible amount of hopelessness and despair. And a loss of vision of the future. I profiled a young boy, another seven-year-old boy, who actually stopped eating. He was so distraught at not being able to see his friends, and not knowing when people were going to be able to go back to school, or do the things that he loved to do. He was anxious and concerned about people getting sick and dying. So he went on what his mother described as a hunger strike — anxiety-induced. And he lost all this weight.
And, you know, his parents were so busy. They were both teachers. They were doing remote teaching; they were homeschooling three children. And it really got to a dire level. Thankfully, teletherapy has been the lifeline for a lot of kids. But we also have to think about the kids that don’t have access to mental health services, which are not in ample supply in the United States.
We’re seeing as well that in facilities for inpatient care, kids are cycling in and out. They are spending days and nights in the emergency rooms, because there aren’t suitable beds for them when they need that kind of intensive intervention. So it’s been really upsetting watching the kids that I’ve been profiling — as well as, honestly, children in my social circles — who are struggling with all kinds of impacts. And they’re expected to continue. I mean, trauma takes time to work its way out. Sometimes people are keeping it together really well when there’s an emergency, but when things are “back to normal,” that’s when the feelings start to come out. So, I think we should be prepared to continue to have this conversation. And make sure that our kids are able to talk about things that they’re going through — and hopefully get the interventions that they need.
TH: There’s another group of children, too, that you look at here: Children who are institutionalized. Whether that’s in foster care, or in juvenile detention centres. You tell the story of one teenager, David, who was incarcerated in Louisiana. Tell us a bit about him.
AK: Yeah, I thought it was really important to talk about the kids that we don’t see physically because they’re locked away. There’s been a reduction in the population in juvenile detention in the last few years in the United States, but there’s still forty thousand teenagers in jails and prisons. David was serving longer sentence. He was able to be out on furloughs. He was able to go home and visit his family. And then when lockdown started, he had to rush back to the jail. He was placed into solitary confinement to quarantine, and then he was basically on lockdown in his cell. And this happened all over the country. You know, children who were teenagers, who were incarcerated, were denied in-person visits with their families. Sometimes up to a full year. This was because of Covid restrictions. I find that to be cruel and inhumane.
It’s not illegal in the United States to deny a teenager visitation with their family, but I just can’t imagine, as a mother, what that would feel like to not be able to see my child for that long. And the same thing happened to kids in foster care. If the foster parents didn’t agree to it, they didn’t have to allow in-person visits during Covid, because of worries about the transmission of the disease. So, you had little babies who were separated from their parents, who had nothing but Zoom to see their families and to maintain that bond.
Similarly, it happened with kids who were institutionalized because they have disabilities. There are kids who are having to be in longterm care because of their mental or physical disabilities, many of whom might not have understood why it was that their parents stopped visiting them. So, these separations are things that we don’t talk about as much as being effects of this terrible pandemic.
TH: The schools are, in so many ways, hubs for different kinds of care. Including care for children with special needs. Say autism, for example. How did the school closures affect kids in that group?
AK: In the U.S. about 14 percent of kids have disabilities. It’s not a tiny number. I’m not sure what it is in Canada. But these are kids who receive services, and their families really rely on the expert interventions that they can get through the school system. And that’s all publicly funded. I interviewed the mom of a daughter who has multiple severe disabilities. She’s nonverbal. She has a feeding tube. But school was this incredible haven for her. It’s a shining example of how the public schools can be a place where she had friends. She was mainstreamed with typical children in a classroom. And when that was taken away, she didn’t have the ability to understand why. She didn’t know why she wasn’t going to school. She just became totally depressed. She shut down. She regressed. That happens a lot with kids with disabilities. They can actually go backwards in their development. And her mother felt like even though she was susceptible to Covid — she was medically-fragile — she felt like having her in school was the most important thing for her, because of their day-to-day. And what she really needed to be happy, not only to be learning.
TH: Anya, you’ve kept the focus on your subjects in this book. But you were also going through this pandemic. You were also a mother. You had children at home. Your workload at NPR went up quite a lot, and you were writing this book. What was this time like for you?
AK: Oh my gosh. I feel like it’s like the newborn period again. Because you look back on it and it’s just a blur. You’re like, “How did I do all of these things? What were my days like?” And obviously I have this record of the pandemic in the book.
I think I felt very lucky. I also felt like it was an incredible experience as a reporter, because there was so much empathy. We were all going through a version of the same things. And I couldn’t tell you the number of times that I called up not only a subject, not only a family I was profiling, but an expert — a person in my socioeconomic demographic, somebody with a PhD doing research — and I opened the conversation talking about what we’re all going through. And there would be tears. People would be like, “Look, I’m here on the phone with you talking about early childhood, but I’m in my closet because I don’t have childcare.” Or, “I’m really, really worried about my own child because they’re having mental health struggles.” This was so real, and it connected all of us. And if there’s anything that I hope that this book can do, it is to bring us back to the part of the pandemic where we felt like we were all in it together. Like what was affecting us was affecting all of us.
TH: It’s such a good point. I remember those early days of the pandemic as well, because I was a producer during that time. I do want to talk a little a bit about how this was able to happen. You talk about that in the book. This was so politicized — and it did not get enough debate early on. I remember in my newsroom, it just felt like it was not on the table for debate at that time. And it did become a very controversial subject to talk about, as you you point out in the book as well. Did you feel any nervousness speaking on this issue — writing this book?