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Education reporter Anya Kamenetz on how the pandemic changed public education – WBUR News

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The COVID-19 pandemic completely upended children’s lives as they knew it. What did they lose?
It’s been nearly two-and-a-half years, but Maya still remembers how on March 13, 2020, her son Jonah’s life completely changed.
“I’ll always remember the day that the shutdown happened because we were actually at his school,” Maya, a mother, remembers.
“And we heard that this was Friday afternoon and we were not going to be going back to school that that next Monday. And I will always remember that night, because Jonah said to me as he was going to bed, ‘I’m going to go crazy. I’m going to go crazy if I don’t go to school.’”
Today, On Point: Maya is featured in education reporter Anya Kamenetz’s new book. We’ll talk with Kamenetz about how COVID changed children’s lives in what she calls “The Stolen Year.”
Anya Kamenetz, longtime education reporter. Author of many books, including The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, And Where We Go Now. (@anya1anya)
Maya, a mom in California’s Bay Area.
During the COVID pandemic, the United States closed schools for longer than almost every other similarly-developed nation.
The price children are paying for those closures is only now becoming clear — and not only in terms of social development and mental health.
Just last week, the federal government released the so-called nations report card, the results of a national assessment that’s been given to American students since the 1970s. And what they found shocked even the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the agency that administers the test.
American nine year olds performance in math and reading have dropped back to the levels they were two decades ago. Put another way, the pandemic erased 20 years of educational gains for third and fourth graders in this country.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re going to speak with longtime education reporter Anya Kamenetz about kids and the pandemic. She’s published a new book titled The Stolen Year.
But before we speak with Anya, let’s listen to the story of a student featured in her book.
Jonah is a middle schooler in California’s Bay Area. He has autism, dyslexia and ADHD.
Before March 2020, Jonah was getting comprehensive and effective supports that helped him learn, moderate his behavior and engage with the world.
But he lost all that when schools closed. Jonah’s mom says she’ll never forget the day. March 13th, 2020, to be exact, when she found out San Francisco was shuttering its school buildings.
MAYA, JONAH’s MOM: Because we were actually at his school, it was fifth grade, and he was getting a progress report. And it was a glowing progress report. And while we were there, all of our phones buzzed at the same time. And we heard that this was Friday afternoon and we were not going to be going back to school that next Monday.
CHAKRABARTI: As with most other districts across the country, the decision to close was a sudden turnabout for San Francisco schools. Just days earlier, on March 11th, 2020, Superintendent Vincent Matthews had assured families that schools would stay open.
VINCENT MATTHEWS [Tape]: At this time, the experts at the San Francisco Department of Public Health do not recommend broad public school closures as schools are essential service with multiple community benefits and children have not been shown to be a high risk group for serious illness at this time.
CHAKRABARTI: But also on March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Within the next two weeks, every single public school building in the United States would shut down in San Francisco. The school board called an emergency meeting on March 12th, after which Superintendent Matthews announced that the city’s public school students would not be coming back into the classroom.
MATTHEWS [Tape]: Instead of doing reactive school by school closures, we’re going to focus the next three weeks on how we can provide essential supports for our community in this new reality.
MAYA: And I will always remember that night. Because Jonah said to me as he was going to bed, I’m going to go crazy. I’m going to go crazy if I don’t go to school. You know, he was, I think, 11 years old at the time. And he was right.
CHAKRABARTI: San Francisco schools were originally set to be closed for three weeks. It ended up being much, much longer.
MAYA: Jonah started middle school during the pandemic, fully remote. And so he went to a new school. New kids. New teachers. He later used the term, like it was just too distracting for him. He just he couldn’t focus.
CHAKRABARTI: Jonas started sixth grade on August 17th, 2020. But even that seemed in limbo because of how long it took the district and the San Francisco Teachers Union to agree on what remote learning would look like.
SUSAN SOLOMON [Tape]: Each and every student will have live interaction and instruction every single day. Every single school day.
CHAKRABARTI: Susan Solomon is president of United Educators of San Francisco. On August 7th, 2020, she told KRON-TV that teachers would be working at least 7 hours a day with a minimum of 2 hours of live remote instruction. The rest of the time would be available for student support.
SOLOMON [Tape]: Teachers will be able to do whole group instruction, small group instruction, and 1 to 1.
CHAKRABARTI: Maya says that’s not how it worked out for Jonah. He refused to do online school, and Maya says she had to bribe Jonah with candy to get him to log on for 15 minutes at a time.
MAYA: The crazy thing is, the teachers were so challenged themselves by the technology, it would take them 15 minutes just to take roll. And so the only part of school that Jonah would be doing would be taking roll.
CHAKRABARTI: Recall that Jonah is a child with autism and dyslexia. Before the pandemic, he’d been getting special services to help him both in school and at home. But once school went all remote, so did those services.
And when Jonah refused to go online for school, he lost access to the critical supports, too. August 2020 turned to September. And in September, San Francisco restaurants reopened indoor dining at 25% capacity for several months. Schools stayed closed, then fall turned to winter. And in December, the San Francisco School District and Teacher’s Union failed to reach an agreement on how to return to in-person learning.
Frustration boiled over at a December 15, 2020 meeting of the Board of Supervisors, when even that city body could not agree on whether to pass a simple resolution, merely asking teachers and administrators if they could come up with a plan to reopen schools. Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer and Hillary Ronen could not hide their fury that San Francisco’s prolonged school closures were setting back children of color and those with special needs the most.
HILLARY RONEN [Tape]: You talk to some of these parents and you talk to some of these children. It would break your heart. This is a disservice. This is racist, and this is a disservice. But I just don’t understand why we just can’t pass something so simple as a resolution that doesn’t say you have to go back. It’s just saying, can we create a plan to go back?
SANDRA LEE FEWER [Tape]: If you want to go and sit in five hour committees every other week … begging, begging the school district to care to think about our children. We have got to work until blue in the face. And we have been told, no, no, we can’t. We can’t. And to not even be able to stand up today and say this is unacceptable for the children of the richest city in the country, is honest to God beyond me.
CHAKRABARTI: By February 2021, the city of San Francisco took an unusual step and sued its own school district, asking a court to order San Francisco Unified Schools to bring students back into buildings. COVID cases in the city had dropped dramatically, and San Francisco health officials determined that rates were low enough to safely reopen schools.
But the teachers union would not budge. And why? Well, it was for the exact same reason others demanded that schools reopen. Susan Solomon, union president, explained to public radio station KQED that teachers, too, were concerned about equity.
SUSAN SOLOMON [Tape]: Black and brown communities are seeing much higher rates of COVID, and we are emphasizing a lower community spread so that we can make sure that safety is first, not just for our members and educators, but for our students and their families.
CHAKRABARTI: Meanwhile, Jonah, one of those kids with special needs, was still struggling. He and most of the 56,000 students in San Francisco’s public schools ended up missing more than a year of in-person learning. Elsewhere in the city, though, things were opening up.
In March 2021, restaurants reopened again at 25% capacity. Schools stayed closed to most students. In May, almost three quarters of San Franciscans were vaccinated. So San Francisco bars, restaurants, sporting events, even indoor saunas and steam rooms all reopened for business, up to 50% capacity, and owners celebrated.
Schools stayed closed. It wasn’t until August 2021 that San Francisco schools finally fully reopened.
Maya had moved her family to another Bay Area city in the summer of 2021. Jonah was now in seventh grade. In August, he was receiving an in-person education for the first time as a middle schooler. But Maya says Jonah couldn’t quickly overcome the cumulative effects of having spent more than a year not getting the kinds of therapy that had helped him navigate the world as a young boy with autism and dyslexia. So he fell behind almost immediately at his new school.
MAYA: Within two months, he had what was the first of two serious suicidal gestures.
CHAKRABARTI: Maya fought to get additional in-person help for Jonah, and she couldn’t get it. Online supports were offered instead, which didn’t work for him. Jonah started refusing to go to school several days a week. His depression and anxiety grew. This past April, Jonah attempted suicide again.
MAYA: He was taken as a level one trauma to the local children’s hospital, where he was unconscious all night long, unresponsive. But he woke up the next morning and that began a whole new series of treatments.
CHAKRABARTI: Since then, Jonah has spent considerable time in residential treatment centers away from home, and Maya says he still has a long way to go.
MAYA: So you could certainly say we’re still in it. We’re still living with the impacts of the pandemic. You know, and while I’m definitely angry at the school districts and I’m angry at our insurance company and for not coming through, I also really understood that nobody was at their best. But it was all so much more severe than it ever needed to be because he just never got the supports that he needed during the pandemic.
CHAKRABARTI: Jonah is 12-years-old. Maya says he’s not the only child she knows who suffered that stolen year.
MAYA: One child is actively suicidal and doing self-harm. Another one got hospitalized with an eating disorder. Another one started having nervous breakdowns and just couldn’t take tests anymore. And this is in a close circle of friends. So while what happened to us is so serious, I have seen so much of it around me. It doesn’t feel unique.
On how schools are the heart of a community
Anya Kamenetz: “It was so frustrating, actually, in your opening segment to hear the politicians say, we understand school is an essential service. If you understand school is an essential service, why did we not treat it that way? That’s really the central question of my book. I start with the fact that the school food program in the United States is the second largest public food program. It serves billions of meals a year.
“There are 30 million children who require those meals, who need those meals. And so when we closed schools and those programs shifted to giving out sandwiches in parking lots, the amount of food given out by two studies dropped by two-thirds, and children went hungry. Child hunger spiked to levels that have not been recorded in this country in modern times. That’s the beginning of it.”
Will kids recover what they lost?
Anya Kamenetz: “Many people have pointed out learning standards are arbitrary, timescales are arbitrary. It doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things if you learn to read when you’re nine or when you’re ten. But eventually these effects add up. … We have a 20% drop over two years in community college enrollment, that has consequences. It has consequences in earning of those people, and in the workforce.
“And we also know that educational attainment is attached to all these other lifetime trajectory issues, health, whether people stay in long term relationships, voting, the connections are endless. And so the question is, are we a worse off country because of this? Or do we somehow knit things back together, and become a better country and pay back what was lost? I want that question to be open. I don’t want to say, you know, that it’s just going to roll downhill. Because if it goes the way it’s going, no, we’re not going to recover.”
Why was the U.S. such an outlier when compared to similarly resourced nations?
Anya Kamenetz: “The nations I’m comparing us with had they found two buckets. The first bucket is the ones who controlled the pandemic. They limited deaths. So Japan, New Zealand, Korea, and that’s where we all would like to be. We all would like to be in a situation where we limited the spread of the virus. The second bucket of countries, mostly European, as well as Israel, they didn’t limit the spread of the virus as well. They had waves of infections, the way that we did. But after the initial spring, they pulled it together and they said, Schools are our priority. Children are a priority. We’re going to put them first.
“And so there were increasingly clear directives from the European equivalent of the CDC, as well as the World Health Organization, that schools were an essential service that should be prioritized over others. And when new waves of the virus came, when Delta came, when Omicron came, they closed other things. They closed bars, restaurants. I reported in Germany, they closed legal brothels, outdoor markets. They kept schools and they kept childcare open. And so, I mean, there was a period on the end of that sentence.
“At the same time, they were able to do that because they had nationalized centralized school systems. And we don’t have that. We have this incredibly decentralized and very small d democratic school system. So it could not have been any one person’s decision to open schools the way that it might have been in France or in Germany. And so there’s a procedural reason to why, but I really am stuck on the moral, ethical reason. Why did we not, as a society, clearly decide to prioritize children the way that European countries did?”
On how the education system should be set up
Anya Kamenetz: “Well, it’s a little bit counterintuitive, but the first thing I would like to do is remove all of these jobs from the shoulders of schools and from teachers. I want us to have a social welfare family infrastructure in this country that every other wealthy country has. I want us to have paid leave, child care subsidies and a child tax credit so we don’t have so many millions of children in poverty with the traumas that come with poverty, coming into the schools.
“That’s what we need to do first. Once schools have been relieved of all of those jobs, or they have people joining them in those jobs, other institutions joining in the work of schools, that schools are doing all by themselves, then we can start to talk about and at the same time, we still have to talk about how we update our curricula to make sure that we’re going to intensively work with these children over the next years.
“This isn’t a one year situation, and federal funding has already been provided. It’s going to go out in 2024. Schools need to use that money. They need to tell everyone how they’re using it. They need to continue to hire and supplement the at the time of learning. And they need to not give up. Because it’s something we can all agree on, is that children are embodied with potential. And we have to see them as having that potential, and being able to recover from this.”
This program aired on September 7, 2022.
Jonathan Chang Twitter Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is an associate producer at On Point.
Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.
Tim Skoog Sound Designer and Producer, On Point
Tim Skoog is a sound designer and producer for On Point.
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