‘Why Was It So Hard?’: How the Pandemic Changed Our Children

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Kamenetz details the harm of school closures in story after story, statistic after statistic, without looking head-on at the fierce battles that in part enabled them. She touches on these battles lightly in Chapter 8, noting that polarization drowned out science, that no single authority was in charge of opening schools, and that there was strong resistance to reopening from teachers and unions. Yet she mostly offers disparate facts and anecdotes as if daring to touch them only with a 10-foot pole: There was a strong correlation between the number of Trump voters in a district and schools reopening; the teachers’ union in Los Angeles “informally demanded that the police be defunded before schools could reopen,” while the one in Chicago posted and deleted a tweet saying reopening was “rooted in racism, sexism and misogyny”; students in Florida, where schools reopened in October 2020, fared much better than those in California, where schools remained remote into 2021. “Why was it so hard?” Kamenetz asks at one point. The answer, which demands challenging and contentious engagement, is left for the reader to squint at between fragments.

“The Stolen Year” gives us all the known characters playing all the same parts: Trump is horrible and incompetent, soccer moms (i.e., white women) are privileged and complicit, Republicans are entitled and malicious, cisgender dads are clueless and oppressive, Black and brown people are oppressed, teachers and unions are good with noble intentions. My criticism is not that these characterizations don’t ring true to me, but that they are givens enacted with such fidelity that they render the world static.

While reported and written with empathy, care and skill, “The Stolen Year” ultimately did not reveal to me any new dimension of what I’d lived. What I found most interesting were the snippets of Kamenetz’s work that suggested more provocative and untold narratives: the families of color who decided to home-school or create their own schools; the community group in Oakland, Calif., that built successful learning hubs and trained mothers to do outreach; the single mother who opted out of school entirely and drove across the country with her autistic son and their cat.

Kamenetz ends on a hopeful note, calling for “post-traumatic growth,” which she explains in large part as a process of “telling stories: what happened, how we felt about it, what it meant and what comes next.” In order to grow, however, we have to move beyond the same old stories, to risk harder questions and imagine new relationships, if we are to reclaim the humanity and future of our children.

Sarah Menkedick is the author of “Homing Instincts” and “Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America.”

THE STOLEN YEAR: How Covid Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now, by Anya Kamenetz | 339 pp. | PublicAffairs | $29

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