The pandemic upended children’s lives. The impact will reverberate for years.
If author and journalist Anya Kamenetz could share one takeaway form her pandemic reporting experience, it would be that our country’s policies overlook and disregard the rights of children.
“They are a marginalized group in our society, and we so often do not recognize that status,” she told Center for Health Journalism 2023 National Fellows this week. “…If you're not a consumer or a citizen, a voter, then what are you? What power do you have?”
The pandemic spotlighted that powerlessness as children across the country lost the ability to attend in-person school, an experience Kamenetz documented in her book “The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now.” In her CHJ presentation, Kamenetz described the long-lasting effects of the pandemic on the country’s youth and highlighted important transformations that have followed.
What children lost
The United States has long fallen short when it comes to public health care, affordable housing, accessible transportation, paid family leave and subsidies that prevent or reduce child poverty, Kamenetz noted. But the country did offer all children a place to attend school.
“For 180 days a year, that's what we provide to kids, and, in the absence of the rest of the structures that we have, it was everything for so many kids,” Kamenetz said.
That all changed in March 2020. As schools closed, children were stuck at home and forced to learn on computer screens.
Kamenetz quickly understood that school shutdowns would upend many young lives. In April, she published a piece for NPR looking at global experiences that interrupted education, from Hurricane Katrina to the Rwandan genocide. A common thread: Recovery from learning loss takes much longer than one might expect. For example, during Katrina, most New Orleans public schools closed for one term and many students enrolled in other nearby cities. Even so, one expert Kamenetz interviewed said it took two full school years for those students to fully recover from the learning disruption.
She realized that the problem wasn’t just missed class time; disrupting school also creates a massive social dislocation. Kamenetz used that insight to inform her pandemic reporting, explaining how the country could expect years of educational and social impacts as well as widening inequities.
While the learning environments eroded for the country’s children, additional stressors emerged such as parents’ economic and health fears. As the pandemic stretched on, bars, restaurants, and dog parks reopened while schools and playgrounds stayed shuttered longer and longer, underscoring her takeaway: the needs of children were not prioritized.
Technology isn’t to blame
Through extensive reporting for her book and beyond, Kamenetz learned about the fragmented child care system and the struggles to stay open amid shifting guidance and little support. She explored the effects of family deaths on children. and the lasting impact on classroom behavior. As schools reopened, she noted the widening learning gaps between the higher-achieving kids and those struggling, which presented additional challenges to already over-taxed teachers. While the ceiling of the top performers stayed relatively constant, the floor dropped, she said.
Meanwhile, a growing youth mental health crisis is contributing to declining school enrollments, chronic absenteeism and anxiety surrounding attendance. All of this contributed to her sense that talk of pandemic recovery does not reflect the on-the-ground reality.
“We’re not gaining ground,” she said. “We’re losing it.”
On the individual level, kids may have missed routine immunizations as well as screenings for developmental delays – and the opportunity for early interventions. Older students may realize the extent of their own academic struggles and struggle with self-esteem.
“And they are not finding ways to succeed,” she said. “…what we really have to think about is how do you keep a kid on track and keep them feeling like they belong in a school long enough for them to find their path.”
While it’s become common to blame technology such as cell phones and video games, the cause of this mental health crisis has much deeper roots, she said.
“We isolated kids,” she said. “We took away their hope for the future. We took away their vision. We really need to give them some credit as being, thinking, feeling human beings, not kids that are hypnotized by video games into hurting themselves.”
Shifting attitudes offer hope
Amid these challenges, there have been some bright spots. For one, the pandemic also heightened appreciation and awareness of mental health, reducing the stigma and opening the door for honest discussions.
In an article for The Washington Post earlier this year, Kamenetz looked at New Jersey high schoolers’ experience with Mental Health First Aid for Youth. The innovative program trains everyone from bus drivers and lunchroom aides to teachers, staff and coaches in how to spot the warning signs of a crisis and when to seek professional help.
Other school systems have used the pandemic’s reliance on computers to enhance and improve their student’s learning experiences. For examples, some schools have used tech programs to create more customized learning and tailored academic goals that students can also see and track.
Another hopeful development is the uptick in high school students who are also taking community college classes. Students who no longer understood the point of high school were drawn to the option of receiving college credits and gaining experience that could lead to a future job.
Looking beyond resilience
While there is much discussion of instilling a sense of “resilience” after a devastating event, Kamenetz is drawn to the concept of post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic growth emphasizes shared experiences and the sense of pride that comes from the strength of surviving. It also focuses on discoveries people have made through this process.
“Because, you know, we can't be Pollyannas and say it was fine and it's behind us now,” she said. “The duality of post traumatic growth is saying: “It happened to me and I'm different and I'm changed and I'm not happy it happened. It was bad and I learned these things.”
Kamenetz encouraged the CHJ National Fellows to give a voice to the experiences of children and highlight steps that can be taken to foster growth amid crisis.
“Our kids are going through a lot and the pandemic experience is really kind of one chapter in that,” she said. “I hope that you will all be there to keep an eye out.”