How a Year of Remote Learning Affected Kids’ Development

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Over a year of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated educational inequities, and worsened the growing mental health crisis among children and adolescents. Jessie Casson/Getty Images
  • In her new book “The Stolen Year,” Author Anya Kamenetz examines how remote learning during the pandemic worsened the growing mental health crisis among children and adolescents.
  • She also examines how it exacerbated existing educational inequities and was detrimental to educational attainment for children and adolescents.
  • Kamenetz offers insight into the educational system’s failings during the COVID-19 pandemic and outlines how they could be avoided during a future crisis.

In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, pointing to stress caused by COVID-19 and racial injustice.

Additionally, in January 2022, the AAP stated that one of the most critical lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of in-person school.

In its guidance, it said that “remote learning exacerbated existing educational inequities, was detrimental to educational attainment, and worsened the growing mental health crisis among children and adolescents.”

Author Anya Kamenetz digs deep into this topic in her book “The Stolen Year,” which examines the negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on children’s development. 

She followed families across the United States as they lived through the pandemic’s first year while discussing the country’s failures in the educational system, the collapse of its child care system, and insufficient subsidies for families, as well as unpaid and underpaid labor of women, and more. 

Below, Kamenetz tells Healthline why she wrote the book and discusses some of the book’s highlights.

Healthline: Why did you write this book?
Kamenetz: As an education correspondent for NPR I had a front-row seat to document the pandemic’s impact on children, so I tried to bear witness.

What do you hope people take away from it?
That we need to be prepared with addressing the impact of COVID on children for years to come: in child development, college-going rates, levels of physical and mental illness, and more. 

Do you think the harms of COVID-19 were overblown?
Not at all. I am horrified by the fact that there are more than one million Americans dead and counting. 

Despite the seriousness of a novel virus, should the United States have done more to protect children from the ramifications of public health policies?
Yes. We could and should have prioritized children’s need for care, learning, and social contact. At the times most needed to limit transmission, we could have shut down bars and indoor dining while keeping schools and daycares open. We could have repurposed empty offices to make space for social distancing so every child could go to school every day instead of hybrid learning. We could have commandeered funds so that children could learn and eat outside, weather permitting. Many other wealthy countries did these things. 

Do you think shutting down schools during the COVID-19 pandemic could have been prevented?
I think schools could have reopened beginning in the summer of 2020 and thereafter except for temporary closures during certain surges that led to personnel shortages because of high community spread. My daughter’s small private Montessori school opened in July 2020 and never had a single transmission, so she didn’t miss a day of in-person learning.  

Did pre-existing failures to our children become exacerbated during the pandemic?
Yes. We have too many poor and unstably housed children who rely on schools for meals and safety and lacked a computer, internet connection, and an adult to help them learn. 

How does our failure to focus on kids’ needs relate to racism, capitalism, toxic individualism, and lean-in style feminism?
We don’t have a social welfare state for families in this country compared to, again, our peer countries, which have public healthcare, paid leave, family stipends that prevent children from falling into poverty, and subsidized child care. 

The reasons for this are historic. Politicians have supported the wealthy and business interests who resist the taxation required for these programs. They have demagogued against “welfare queens” using racist dog-whistle language. And prominent feminists, who you might expect to advocate the most strongly for these social programs, often instead advocated for their own professional advancement. 

How were children of color particularly affected by the pandemic?
They lost proportionately more loved ones to COVID. Their families lost proportionately more jobs. They tended to be in remote school longer.  In some cases, their test scores fell more. For some groups, their mental health outcomes are worse. 

Many mental health professionals believe children will feel the ramifications of the pandemic for years to come. Do you agree?
Some of our children will be very resilient. Some might even experience growth, becoming more compassionate or flexible. Others have been through toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences that will mark their bodies and their minds. They will need assistance to heal and reach their full potential. 

Do you think the United States will be more prepared to protect children should we face another pandemic?
We haven’t put any of the structures in place that I mentioned. But leaders are now talking more about the importance of in-person school and all the services it provides. Hindsight is 20/20. 

What can our leaders do to make sure we are more prepared to protect children going forward and what can we do as individuals?
Leaders can develop the plans and expertise necessary for the next crisis. They can keep family policies on the agenda and try to get them passed. As individuals, we can advocate for all of this and as parents and community members, we need to keep equity and the needs of all children in mind.

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