Kids and teenagers across the country are still recovering from the learning loss caused by schools shutting down during the height of the pandemic. Andy talks with former NPR Education Reporter Anya Kamenetz about her new book, “The Stolen Year,” which unpacks COVID’s devastating effects on our youth, from fewer college goers to toddlers with developmental delays. How behind is our youngest generation and what will it take for school districts, teachers, and parents to get kids back on track?
Keep up with Andy on Twitter @ASlavitt.
Follow Anya Kamenetz on Twitter @anya1anya.
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Check out these resources from today’s episode:
- Order Anya’s new book, “The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now”: https://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/titles/anya-kamenetz/the-stolen-year/9781541701014/
- Read this study which found that 70% of Detroit students were chronically absent in the 2020-2021 school year: https://www.edworkingpapers.com/sites/default/files/ai22-609.pdf
- Find vaccines, masks, testing, treatments, and other resources in your community: https://www.covid.gov/
- Order Andy’s book, “Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response”: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250770165
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Andy Slavitt, Anya Kamenetz
Andy Slavitt 00:18
Welcome to the bubble. It’s September the seventh, it’s Andy Slavitt. We are all back from labor day back at work back at school, getting ready for the leaves to turn, and probably still hot weather Most of the country. So if you want to pretend like it’s still summer, go ahead, feel free. That’s up to you. boosters are out, by bi-vaillant boosters rolling out and get yours. Little word on the boosters. People are asking cash, when should I get mine. And I think there’s some data which says that, if you’ve recently had COVID, in the last, say two months, as I have, or you have, for some reason, the booster didn’t last two months, makes sense to wait a couple months. So I’m not going to get my booster till October. Now, Lana, who has not had COVID, lucky woman, and who’s up to date on her boosters, but hasn’t had a booster in the last couple of months is going to get one right away. So I’d say you know, if you’re at risk, you haven’t had your shot in a while and go and get it right away. And if you have had COVID recently or been boosted recently, then you know, I think it could make sense to wait until October, some of the research that came out basically said that your antibody levels are going to still be pretty high if you’ve had BA5, and that your B cells, which is the kind of memory part of your cellular system, and your immune process won’t recognize the booster, if you get it too early. So you had to let a couple of months pass if you want to get the B cell impact, which I do. So I’m gonna get in October. But the good news is they’re available, they should do a better job. We’ll see how long they last. Hopefully they last through the winter, it would be certainly nice if they did. And a lot of people get them. Because I’m really tired of these waves, just tired of these waves. And they’re just no fun for anybody. You know, even with fewer people dying, and then we’re in a much better place. They’re just people being out of work. Schools being closed people, missing class, in basketball games being shut down, whatever it is just, let’s just hopefully people will get more boosters this time around. I don’t hold that a lot of hope for that. But you know, there it is.
Andy Slavitt 02:42
And with school coming back, we’re going to have an amazing episode that’s focused on one of the things that happened during the pandemic that we really have to deal with. And that’s learning loss from kids, and the impact on their parents and families, teachers. And no one better in my opinion, no one better than Kanye communists, who was longtime NPR Education reporter. She’s out with a new book on learning loss, she has done incredible amount of research. She’s very smart. And look, you might approach this issue. From the standpoint a lot of different points of view here. Many of them valid, hard to know, the best answer. But very valid to say Schools shouldn’t have been closed for as long as they were. And they were closed for reasons that in retrospect should have been done. There’s other people who would also say, no, I as a parent, I as a teacher, as a student didn’t feel safe. We’re not going to get into that debate so much, although I think there’s a thread that comes through this conversation, which is a regretful thread, which is a thread which says we made other choices. And we should have been prioritizing schools. But the real heart of the conversation is the impact that it’s all had on kids, whether we felt that schools should be open hybrid full, not what have you. You have to acknowledge even if you’re someone who was on the more cautious side, you have to acknowledge that we now have to do something about the learning loss because it’s pretty devastating. There’s a study out last week, which showed the most substantial losses among nine year old’s in math and in reading, ever, the first ever reduction in math competency among nine year old’s. And remember, these kids have to go to another grade. Did you ever have that dream when you’re a kid that like you went to take a test, you open the textbook and you didn’t know anything? Well, these kids are moving into fifth grade being asked to do fractions when you know they didn’t even learn the thing because before fractions, I don’t know what comes before fractions. It’s too long gone for me, but you get my point. It is not a situation we can ignore. So let’s understand it. And we’re going to have an amazing conversation with Anya to understand it is truly amazing. I hope you listen to it. I hope you like it. And then Friday, we’re going to ask a question of how is it being solved, and how to solve it. And the good news is, there are parents, and there are states in their districts that are on it. There’s money for it. But I really don’t want us to pay the short shrift. I don’t care if your kids are out of school, this is important to all of us, our country will not be able to get where it needs to get if we don’t close these educational gaps and hurdles. We got to do it. Let’s bring it on Anya.
Andy Slavitt 05:39
Anya, welcome to IN THE BUBBLE.
Anya Kamenetz 05:41
Thank you so much for having me. Can […] I get you guys got me through like the worst parts of the pandemic, I would go on these runs. Only time I would leave my house and I’d be listening to you. The Sun would be coming up, it’d be like my only moment of my day to really like sit back and reflect. And it was like, so sane, and so calm. Just, I mean, I know you hear from this people all the time, but like, oh, my gosh, thank you.
Andy Slavitt 06:07
I’m so flattered. I mean, I hope it did bring calm and a little bit of perspective and purpose and sense that we’re going to get through this at times, because at times I’m sure it didn’t for all of us, it didn’t necessarily feel like we were gonna get through it. You know, as we start the school year. And as I looked at the work, you’ve done, both as a reporter for NPR in the book that you have coming out, I’m so reminded of how many different lenses there are on the pandemic. I wonder if you could maybe reflect on a story or two, emblematic of the losses that our kids experienced? Because you spent time with a lot of families. It’d be great way to start.
Anya Kamenetz 06:55
So one that I’ve been sitting with recently, I got to know them pretty early on, we did a call out for teachers who were also parents, so really in both sides. And so Jeannie lives in rural Oklahoma, and she’s a single parent to five kids. She added, you know, a 16 year old boy, a 13 year old boy, a 10 year old girl, an eight year old twin girls, and you just saw how their lives proceeded. And she did so much. I mean, she was an incredible mom, from my understanding. But you saw, you know, you saw how the middle child, the middle girl, took on all these household responsibilities and really tried to like become a second mother in the house, you saw the older boy drift into work was the thing he was allowed to do. So he went to Sonic, he got promoted at Sonic, he added more and more hours at Sonic, to the point where he lost his college scholarship, and college was no longer on the table. And you saw the little girls, they had each other, they had the whole family surrounding them supporting them, they really seem to be doing pretty well. And then you saw the middle boy who was didn’t have the outlet that his older brother had get more and more isolated and inward. And it was in March 2021, where he told a friend that he was feeling suicidal. So just all of these paths that this family followed, and Jeanne herself, struggling through all of it, you know, really, to me, it’s almost like the whole country in one family.
Andy Slavitt 08:21
So, you know, this is a story of learning loss, and it would be great to get your perspective on I don’t want to brush past that. But what you just talked about was some of the other things that kids get from their schools. How do you reflect on, you know, in totality, what kids have experience and sort of where it leaves them?
Anya Kamenetz 08:49
That’s such a huge question. I mean, this was seismic. And I think part of the reason is because we allowed schools to become the mainstay, we don’t really have a social welfare system in this country. You know, we don’t have health care, we don’t have child care. We don’t have paid family leave. We have the schools. And we have moms, you know. And so when schools shut their doors immediately in April 2020, hunger skyrocketed. 17, and a half percent of families told the Census Bureau, not that I’m food insecure, but that my children aren’t getting enough to eat. And that’s something that doesn’t even show up in the statistics most of the time. So, I mean, that’s just I mean, the basis of the hierarchy of needs, right? Just basic safety, food security. We definitely need to talk about learning, we have to talk about the emotional, safe space, literally quiet, safe space that schools were for so many kids. And then I also don’t want to let go the sense of meaning and purpose, you know, especially for our teenagers who are trying to make sense of their lives who are looking forward to these milestones. And what so many of them told me was, you know, it was hard to think about the future hard to plan for the future and hard to hope for anything. When things shut down.
Andy Slavitt 10:09
Yeah, I was trying to do some math. And as I was looking through your book, 14% of kids with some sort of disability or special needs that they get from the school, 10% of kids who are depending on school simply to learn English, 50% of kids who are low income, which means that there is some role other than just education, that school is playing for them. And, you know, 30 million kids that are on free or subsidized lunches. So it is probably, we don’t do a great job of being empathetic, even though I know a lot of us try. But if you’ve got a child who has means if you can afford child care, if they speak English, if they don’t happen to have a special need, you may have experienced the pandemic in a way that is, you’ve had some loss, it’s been inconvenient, it’s been challenging. And then there’s this whole other set of kids, tens to millions of kids, where it feels like we pulled out something bigger from underneath them.
Anya Kamenetz 11:18
That’s a lovely summation. And I mean, we should let another minute pass with also noting that in at least 200,000 kids to date have been bereaved, orphaned by COVID-19. So that is going to reverberate throughout their lives.
Andy Slavitt 11:32
You write about a kid who and their sister who shared a bedroom with their grandfather. Yeah. And from what I recall, he didn’t go back to school after that.
Anya Kamenetz 11:43
The two of them, although it was in Texas, and schools were reopened, those two kids didn’t go back to school that year, because they were well, that was a whole full school year. So they lost their grant their puppy in the summer, the whole school year, they stayed home because they just didn’t feel like it was going to be safe for them. They didn’t think other people were taking the pandemic seriously enough, and they couldn’t handle that. And that is totally a microcosm. I mean, we saw that, you know, fully into 2021, it was happened to be many more kids. And it wasn’t just a coincidence, kids from these harder hit communities, African American, Latino, and Asian American who had the multi-generational households who are much more likely to see COVID in their lives, who stayed with remote learning that much longer.
Andy Slavitt 12:29
Let’s step back and take a little bit about how we got here. Because I think it’s instructive. What were some of the key decisions that we made. And let’s Monday morning quarterback a little bit around schools, closing them opening, and with the benefit of what we now know, what were some of the key decisions that that we made? And how might we be thinking about them differently in the perspective of hindsight.
Anya Kamenetz 12:56
So I do have to say that I was a person who in April 2020, looked at the past research on school closures that offered a really solid roadmap for what we were going to see. So you know, just to establish my Monday morning quarterbacking credentials there, if you put yourself into the position, first of all, our school system is so weird. There’s 13,000 school districts. There’s no national Ministry of Education, there’s no national curriculum, the federal government gives 10% or less of the funding for schools. So nobody’s really the captain of the ship. That was a huge fundamental structural flaw. Secondly, school leaders start planning their fall in April, right? There staffing, they’re scheduling, all the nuts and bolts, all the little things that you don’t think of and you know, they run kitchens, as we just established, they run bust squats, so they have to do that in April. And what were they doing in April 2020? Not that. Right. So the planning wasn’t there. The contingencies weren’t there. The funding wasn’t there. There was a tranche of money that went out in the spring to schools, but there was no, it took a while for that to come in the fall. And again, this is a slow a big ship that you’re trying to turn. And so the planning that would have been necessary to open schools, and as you know, more than anyone, right, it’s not just the plan. It’s how you communicate it. With calm, with confidence. This is what we’re going to do. This is what we’re going to do. And I saw so few districts that were really up to that challenge, and it was an incredible challenge.
Andy Slavitt 14:27
And why did they get it wrong? I mean, why did we get it wrong? I mean, yeah, we all got it wrong. I mean, yeah, in that sense, it was it was just too great a shock that they just hadn’t thought about before. You know, what was it that caused us to get it wrong?
Anya Kamenetz 14:45
Well, I think that there was a huge amount of confusion about what actually it would take for schools to open up safely. I don’t think that we heard from national leadership, a very serious and thought out plan. And the politicization of the science was such that, you know, well, there’s a specific incident in my head, which is when the American Academy of Pediatrics, in the summer of 2020, put out a statement, saying very clearly, districts and states should plan with the goal of reopen of having kids in person. That’s a priority. That was immediately seized upon by the Trump administration. There was events, you know, with the AAP. And immediately there was a huge backlash. The teacher union says, What about us, you didn’t talk about adult safety in this directive. You’re only focusing on the kids. And the pediatricians are like, yeah, we’re pediatricians. We care about the kids. And we see that this is harming them. Within a couple of weeks, there was essentially a retraction, there was a new directive issued, which way emphasize the idea of safety way emphasize the idea that we need funding to do this correctly. And what was lost in the shuffle was this full throated endorsement of you should start with a goal of having kids in school in person.
Andy Slavitt 16:02
Right. I remember, it was a very hot time and argument. You know, it spilled over everywhere. But, you know, we had this sort of adoration of teachers, when we started to figure out how we were challenged to substitute for them, and then all sudden, it became in a lot of a lot of areas, teacher against parent. And there were strong voices on both sides. I mean, they were parents who were very strongly wanted to get their kids back in school, there are parents who very strongly didn’t want to get their kids back in school. And you know, there were very few voices who were thinking from an equity perspective. And we had a couple shows one with Arne Duncan, that I remember that almost brought me to tears, talking about what was happening in Chicago. Yeah. And other major cities. You know, it felt like we were, there wasn’t a clear set of what the straight up truth was up for besides standpoint. Yeah. And there was just a lot of overlay of the emotion. And then something that I think, I mean, maybe you could comment on that started to happen was, you started to see parents who could afford to create alternate plans? Yes, they would, you know, maybe hire a teacher on the side or create a create a pod or working group or what have you. And it felt like that took a lot of pressure off, at least at the time, I recall, the desire to get back to school, and that obviously, less hurt the equity situation, right?
Anya Kamenetz 17:35
Yeah, I think that’s a fair reading. And I remember that podcast with Arne Duncan, and how upset and that’s exactly what I found in my reporting to was just how many kids were totally invisible, just not in the conversation, nobody there to speak for them. Because, you know, and I think we can say so often that schools are the places that speak for invisible kids, you know, kids that don’t see a doctor, otherwise they don’t see a dentist, otherwise, they might not see a kind of mental health counselor otherwise, so it was a data void, you don’t know what you don’t know. And I’ll say I, as a reporter, I had my own two kids at home, I had part time childcare, I wasn’t out in the field, like I could have been talking. So I’ll take some of that, you know, but I agree with you that the succession and this is, this goes to what public schools are in this country and how rare they are, which is a place where 9 out of 10 kids go to public schools. And it is this fragile, consensus, democratic institution where we have a constant fight for equity and inclusion. And there’s all kinds of pressures both ways. And segregation is awful in schools, by class by race, but we all come together because we care about our schools. And it’s hurtful, it’s I mean, it’s like a moral injury for parents that were privileged enough to figure out a way to opt out. And then the lack of Solidarity was very upsetting. And I’ll flip that around also and say, there were also parents who stayed with their public schools. I remember there were people I talked to you in the Chicago schools, for example, more privileged parents for whom go into an urban school was this absolute choice. Same thing at Brooklyn, where I’m from, absolutely, it was a choice to go to their schools. They’re asking for the schools to be open and to perform their function. And they’re being told that they’re racist for asking that. They just want to go to yoga, and they don’t care about the safety of students of color, and that’s why they’re clamoring for schools to open so there’s ugly fissures that opened up.
Andy Slavitt 19:31
Was there a school district that you think handled it? Well, that parents and teachers got together communicated properly? They did the right things and, and they were able to build a consensus of the right answer?
Anya Kamenetz 19:45
There are districts all over the country that did that. And they’re not big ones. And I think that’s part of the reason right. 4000 person district, a 2000 person district, I talked to one of the Illinois suburbs that had a really I found a really good hybrid plan where they had half the kids come in the morning, and the other half came in the afternoon. And they had their core classes in person and their electives on Zoom. So they had that daily routine of going to school. And they didn’t eat lunch at school, because they did when did the morning when did the afternoon. So it’s like, that’s a clever plan, I would have loved to see that replicated DeKalb County in Georgia, they did a really good job with their matrix like they put out, this is what we’re going to do when numbers get to here, this is what we’re gonna do with numbers get to here. And they did at the very beginning of the year, so everyone had just read it, there was a county district in California and the name is going to escape me, they never closed, they figured out a way to stay open kind of outside of what the rest of the state was doing.
Andy Slavitt 20:42
Well, I want to get to after break, I want to start to get to the impact on kids and where they stand now. And then we can talk about what some of the solutions are. Before we jump into some of the impact on kids, I can’t resist asking you to talk a little bit about former secretary Betsy DeVos in the stock because like it everything is an excuse to bash the Trump administration. But it’s because I want to try to find a way for you to talk about some of the things that I know you’ve reported on over time, which is just public attitudes over the decades towards public school and the role of public school and some of the politics that was going on underneath. And it just so happened that the person who became secretary was kind of an emblematic part of that debate.
Anya Kamenetz 21:53
Oh, yeah. Yeah. Talking about the woman for the moment. So okay, so if you think about the GOP, right, what is the Republican coalition? Well, you got evangelical Christians, you got libertarians, you got corporate capitalists. What do these people have in common? Very little, sometimes it seems except what got them all together in the first place desegregation. So Brown versus Board of Ed was a galvanizing moment for the American right in the time that it is right now. Which means that there were people who were liked the idea that they should shrink government to the point where they can drown into the bathtub, they didn’t want to pay taxes, right? For public services. In fact, the argument was put forth that it was undemocratic to charge the wealthy who were a minority for services enjoyed by the majority. And the prime example of this was public schools. So there was a there’s an anti-pub, and obviously the evangelical Christian movement, which is back to the beginning of America, by the way, people saying the schools are godless the schools are secular, you know, you’ve got too much LGBT rights. So we, you know, we want to, we don’t want to have to participate in this. And then the homeschool movement is part of that. So all of these things come together, and Betsy DeVos. And when she’s named education secretary by Trump, she’s never taught in a public school. She’s never said her kids to a public school, and she’s never attended a public school. And she really doesn’t seem to have a lot of interest, actually her interest in public education. That is to find alternatives to it.
Andy Slavitt 23:21
Right to take the money that’s going into public education and use it for other things. And look, I think we should, in fairness, discuss the other side of this, which is that a lot of liberals came under criticism. And whether it’s teachers themselves, the teachers unions, are the actions of some parents and their attitudes towards schools. Help us understand what the people who were generally speaking on the other side of the aisle didn’t do particularly well, or you could perhaps be critical of.
Anya Kamenetz 23:51
Well, red states open their schools and blue states didn’t. I mean, and in states like Michigan, you could count the open schools by the percentage of Trump votes by county. That’s how polarized it was. That’s how politicized it was. That’s how much we put kids in the middle of what was supposed to be what did liberals say follow the science, listen to the science. What did they do? They didn’t do that. You know, abandoning the project of trying to keep schools open to schools closed for more than a year didn’t comport with what our peer countries did. And it didn’t comport with a with a lot of I mean, you could find scientists on all sides of all of this, obviously, but the gulf between what red states and blue states did as far as schools was fast and the impact on children is palpable.
Andy Slavitt 24:33
Well, there are bars open with schools closed that yes, yes. And it’s hard for the site. It’s hard to make sense of that science. When kids are lower risk and the utility of a bar and I don’t begrudge I like my beard as much as much as the next person. Yeah. And I love by small businesses as much as the next person. But it really does say something when, when we you know, we have this lip service to kids first. And that’s just sort of not what we experienced. So let’s talk about what, what the impact has been. help us think about what the average K-12 child lost and where that puts them today, relative to the track that they that they would have otherwise been on.
Anya Kamenetz 25:23
I hate to talk about this, Andy, because the fact is that if the losses haven’t stopped yet, you know, so when I first reported on what this might mean, there was research out of Katrina, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina showing a two year recovery from that school closure. And that was true, even though most of those kids were back in a school within a few weeks. So two years to get on the test score trajectory that they would have been on. But I’m just looking at a study that came out this month, showing that in the 2020-2021 school year 70% of Detroit students were chronically absent. Seven out of 10 chronic absenteeism is like there’s a linear relationship between absenteeism and student performance. Right? If you’re not there, you can’t learn. And so that absenteeism that continued on and it continued to Omicron, right, we saw schools closed all over the country for staff shortages. They weren’t remote. On random weekends, they ran out of substitutes, this just kept happening. And so kids are still falling behind. You know, that’s not true across the board. So the state of Tennessee, which was a less redder state, a less closed state, has posted test score gains, showing that their kids are back on track to 2019 levels. Yeah, they invested in tutoring, they lengthen the school year, they had summer school, they did all the things that we’ve heard about. So it’s not impossible, and these kids are not doomed. And I never want to be the person associated with saying that any kid’s future is written right now.
Andy Slavitt 26:58
Well, we can’t recover unless we know what the gap is. And the learning gap, it sounds like you’re saying could be made up. But it requires the kind of effort that you saw in Tennessee that requires more hours more commitment, more funding, we’ve got to do a lot extra work. Right?
Anya Kamenetz 27:16
That’s so well put, but that’s exactly right. I mean, and you know, in special education, there’s this concept called the compensatory services, right? So Developmental Disabilities follow developmental pathways lost time is truly lost time. And so not just for our 14% of kids who have an individualized education plan, but for all of our kids, that sense of compensation really has to be invoked here. And I think that there’s the two ends of the childhood spectrum is where I’m really concerned. So we’ve seen a dramatic drop in college going. And you see kids falling off that life track. And when I did my first, you know, again, looking back at Katrina, the research their college going had not recovered within 10 years of the hurricane. So that’s a family thing. That’s almost like a generational impact. And that’s not just I mean, that’s kids who, you know, we know if a kid is in trouble in third grade, if they, you know, don’t read well, by third grade, if they fail a class in ninth grade, they’re not graduating high school, they’ve got a much harder time. So the college going, I’m very concerned, right? That’s a very big deal we had, you know, we were struggling to keep up with the need for college educated people before the pandemic, now we have this huge drop, then I’m super concerned about the COVID babies, the zero to three, right, we’re already seeing very worrisome reports about their developmental delays, their social delays, and what you need to catch up. You need intervention.
Andy Slavitt 28:48
Tell us more about that. Because, you know, all the research that I’ve seen, suggests that that’s the age of the largest leaps in development. What’s happening with kids of that age?
Anya Kamenetz 29:00
Well, it’s such a storm. I mean, you can look at there’s research going back decades on […], right? Parents will stress in utero can be seen in children. Then there are the ones that were babies and their parents didn’t have the support system. A lot of you know, a lot of it’s about the caregiver, the mother baby or the caregiver, baby dyad. Right. If this person is stressed out if they are experiencing, you know, not sure what they’re going to eat or where they’re going to sleep. This wasn’t stressed out. Everyone was stressed out. Everyone was stressed out, but the economic stress that parents in particular were under and we have to remember, this was a she session was a female recession, the care industries, the retail industries, those are the jobs that were lost, the Latina and Black heads of households. That’s who lost jobs. It’s like a perfectly designed weapon to attack families and attack families with little children. And so yes, you see it in emotional development, social development. You see it in speech delays. We’re hearing a lot about cognitive delays. and delayed assessments. That’s the other part, right? They didn’t go to pediatrician. So they didn’t get that spot at six months. And there has been a huge increase in early interventions in last decade. And we see how powerful that can be. So this is the converse of that.
Andy Slavitt 30:14
All right, let’s take a quick break. And then we’re gonna come back and I want to talk about what’s schools need to do now, as the year starts to make up for learning loss? So we’ve dug a hole for ourselves, and we’re entering a new school year. So where does this where does the solution start in terms of what we should be doing? Now, as we enter the school year? What would you like to see?
Anya Kamenetz 31:04
So I think I’d start with what parents want to see, which is, vast majority believe that there we did, I did a poll when I was with NPR earlier, in the spring, three out of four parents believe their kids would benefit from mental health counseling. So there’s a massive, massive desire for that they’re far more concerned about their kids mental health than about their kids learning. And partly, partly, that’s because parents aren’t as informed consumers of education, they don’t necessarily know what the third grade reading standard is, but they know if their kids not doing well, right. But providing both of that is what schools need to do. And I do see schools really picking up on that, I think that there’s you know, and you’ve covered on this show the mental health hotline, I just recently completed an article on Youth Mental Health First Aid training, which and increasing the number of people that have gotten that training has more than doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. So this is something where every person in that school can be that helping hand. For a kid that’s having a tough spot, it can be the bus driver, it can be the coach, it can be the lunch lady, they all feel empowered, and teens also are getting the training. So they can be that listening air for their friends, and transforming the entire school into a more tender place is really what I see as a bright spot. I also want to say that schools got $122 billion giant airlift of cash from the federal government, they’ve spent a miniscule fraction of it. They’ve had bureaucratic issues. There has been, there’s a reluctance to use it for hiring, which is so frustrating, because we know that schools have staff shortages, but they don’t want to add line items to their budget that they’ll have to pay for after the money runs out. So there’s trouble getting different kinds of projects approved, but there’s no excuse. You have the money, you have the need, right?
Andy Slavitt 32:47
And what are the priorities for that money, you can imagine that some of it needs to go to physical retrofitting, you can imagine that, that some of it should go for mental health and counseling services. But then you could also imagine that some of it should go for extending the school year or the school day, or your nutrition programs. Where to begin? And is there I guess is the question, is there a model where someone’s doing it in a thoughtful way that we could point to and others can copy?
Anya Kamenetz 33:19
Well, I mean, the tough thing is that districts are different, and they have different needs. Right? And intentionally, the federal government didn’t wasn’t too prescriptive about it, because they trusted districts to make their own plans. You know, and I mean, I would call out states like the state of Tennessee, again, where there seems to be a bipartisan consensus that there is a way forward here. And teachers are on the same page, school leaders are on the same page, school boards are on the same page. It’s very frustrating here in New York City, because you have to remember at the same time, we didn’t really talk about the public school enrollment drop, there’s missing kids out there. And schools are headcount funded. So in some cases, this federal money is going to backfill, automatic declines in funding, which come from the fact that there’s not as many kids in the school. And that’s why, you know, New York City where I live, the largest district in the country is in the middle of this debate about should we fund arts programs anymore, like cutting the art teacher, my kids school, they cut the art teacher, now you’re in the art teacher now?
Andy Slavitt 34:20
Wow. Wow. So out of this, is there kind of a direction that parents, teachers and schools are going to be pushing for or should be pushing for?
Anya Kamenetz 34:38
I started to feel towards the end of the last school year that one of the big things that had been missing was the relationship between teachers, parents and teachers, right, because physically, the parents were not allowed inside the buildings. So all of those little interactions that you normally take for granted all the PTA stuff and all the field days and all of the book fairs it wasn’t happening. And I think Parents really miss it. I think if you look at this wave of hostility that happened in the school boards, you know, a lot of that was on not getting a voice. But normally that voice is built up in a much less hostile way. You’re building community, right, and you’re building that trust. So the rebuilding of that trust is going to be so important. And I’m a little worried, because I see that, you know, we’re starting to talk about mask mandates, again, and that’s such a super sore spot for some parents, but we do know that there is a deep well of support for their local public schools, on the behalf of most parents, they feel that my teachers are doing the best they can. And so the more that we can kind of reestablish those relationships. That’s where I kind of see a bright spot moving forward.
Andy Slavitt 35:46
And as we sit here today, my impression is that most of the schools are open for in person learning and plan to stay that way. Is that right?
Anya Kamenetz 35:55
A lot of people started singing from the same hymnal, that we’re not on the same page in May or June or July 2020. And I think you hear a very full throated support. And obviously, the leadership of President Biden and Miguel Cardona, his education secretary was a huge part of that. But yeah, I mean, people understand that kids need to be in school, everyone understands that they don’t want to go back to distance learning. However, if half of your staff is out sick, right, it’s like the airlines, you can’t. So going to emergency distance learning is almost worse, in some ways, because the parents are caught unprepared. Nobody has a backup plan. And I’m very nervous about that. I’m nervous about another wave of disruptions like that, how can we ever learn to prepare for that?
Andy Slavitt 36:40
You know, I often try to unwrap in my minds, when there’s things to be upset about in the pandemic. Oftentimes, we look for people that are accountable, and we should look for decisions that we made that would make differently. Yeah, I’d also say that, like, sometimes the only person we mad at is like the virus. Because these are tricky situations. And we want people to do the best they can. But the reason why this book, I think, is so important, the reason why it’s gonna be so focusing for people is it’s all well and good if you’ve basically can tell yourself a story that you’ve got resilience, you can bounce back, etc. And look for most adults, we know we’ve had decades of experience dealing with hard things. And for kids, that’s just simply not the case. And I think we’d like to believe that people will be back in school things will be okay, we don’t have things to make up for. And, you know, I just say, looking at what you’ve put together and all the work you’ve done. It’s just not the case. You know, there’s a lot that has to be done, or we’re going to see this swath of children continuing to face real difficulty, even separate and apart from what learning they didn’t get.
Anya Kamenetz 38:01
Thank you. Yeah, that’s, that’s all I was trying to do. And I just want to add to that, that it hurts me so much to think about how the pain of children is so hard for us to confront as adults, it brings up so many feelings, and maybe our own childhood trauma, that we look away from it. And I’ve already started to hear people say like, Oh, your book is depressing. And I’m like, Get over yourself. Just sit down, this is your chance to listen and find out what happened. We have to pay attention.
Andy Slavitt 38:31
This book puts kids in the middle. And I think that’s one of the special about it’s not about schools. It’s not about, you know, mental, it’s about it’s about kids. But I do want to close by just asking about, about another group of people, which are moms and women in general. Yeah. And how far back this set a number of women in their careers in whatever delicate balance they put together in their lives to feel like they were educating their kids and their kids were getting what they needed, and that they were also able to advance their own lives. And I feel like it’s almost in some ways even less visible, because people bear that cost silently, quietly. And yet, it’s equally as deep. And, you know, she pointed out in the book, there’s a lot more single moms and single dads, there’s a lot more moms with primary responsibility. Who had to make compromises during the kid pandemic than dads.
Anya Kamenetz 39:39
I mean, I don’t even know what to where to go with that because we’re sitting here you know, after Dobbs and just what feels like an incredibly gendered attack on women. And this assumption that we’re going to be able to create an entire economy on the back of unpaid labor and underpaid labor because I put caregivers together and I say, you know, there are there, women making $12 An hour and there are the aunties. And there are the mothers and they all are together, they’re all under recognized, they’re all underpaid. And it just can’t go on like this. I mean, it’s time to recognize care. And treat it as the essential work that it is.
Andy Slavitt 40:21
Yeah, I was glad you had Ai-jen Poo in your in reference in your book, because she’s done. She’s done remarkable. work there. But look, look, these are topics that even as we think about the loss of life, and the other kind of very visible very much in the headlines, effects of the pandemic, I told you, as we were getting started, that I so loved this book, part of the reason I did is because there’s a richness to the journey we’ve been on that is untold. And the losses that so many people faced, don’t show up in ways that are very visible. And I think the only way is through the stolen year, and hopefully more books that come out like it.
Anya Kamenetz 41:09
That means so much to me. I mean, your podcast meant so much to me in this time when I was reporting this book and reading it and living through it. And, you know, I feel like it’s complimentary in a way, right? Because help just help people understand how people have empathy for someone that’s not their experience, and maybe also feel validated that someone else was going through something similar to you.
Andy Slavitt 41:29
Right? Well, I wish you the best, I really appreciate you coming in the bubble, read the book. It’ll help you get a sense, not just what your kids going through. But what a lot of other families are going through. And, you know, I think until and Arne Duncan said this particularly well, but you know, until all of us start thinking about the impact that people from most challenged circumstances face when it comes to schools, we’re going to get to generate decisions that are going to leave people behind. And thank you.
Anya Kamenetz 42:02
You’re welcome. Thank you so much.
Andy Slavitt 42:16
Hope you enjoyed that conversation. I hope it leaves you hungry to solve this problem, or now it’s going to be solved in the bubble. I think, at least a part is about trying to bring you solutions around what’s around the corner. And we’re going to do that on Friday, with two amazing guests. One is the commissioner of education in the state of Tennessee, who started implementing a plan to fight against the worst impact on kids from the pandemic. And an amazing moment as a parent in the city of Oakland, who has, I would say single handedly as a leader but she would probably say with a number of families in Oakland decided to take on not just learning loss, but the education inequities that exist in the system. And it’s an amazing story. And so I think you’re gonna leave Friday show inspired and hopeful and hopefully ready to get to action. And then we’ve got some great shows coming up. Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain, we have Christian Anderson, who is going to be talking about COVID-19 and the origins. We have Dahlia Lithwick, the law professor and writer who’s going to be talking about many of the things that happened during the Trump years injustice. And we have Neel Kashkari who’s the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Lots of good shows, talk to you on Friday.
Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kathryn Barnes, Jackie Harris and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.