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3 years after pandemic school closings, how were kids and parents affected?

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

It's been three years since schools closed their doors in the United States, as they did all over the world, to try to slow the spread of COVID. Back then, Anya Kamenetz was covering education for NPR, and her reporting turned into a book about the impact of the pandemic on children and their families. It's called "The Stolen Year." And we invited her back to talk about what we now know and what comes next. Anya, hi.

ANYA KAMENETZ: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: We're now able to measure the impact of the pandemic on kids in schools. We know there was significant learning loss, now being reflected in test scores. An AP investigation found that almost a quarter-million children across 21 U.S. states are missing entirely from schools. And the CDC says teen mental health is worse than ever. Do we know how much of that is due to school closures versus all the other havoc that the pandemic wreaked on us educationally, personally, professionally?

KAMENETZ: Yeah, it's a good question. When you're talking about the loss of learning or children even going missing from school entirely, I think researchers would say that's a direct result of remote learning just not being an adequate substitute for in-person school for most children. It disconnected them physically from all the support in their schools. And the continued absence of children from school, that also may be connected to all the absenteeism that happened because of quarantines, even after schools reopened. The downturn in teen mental health, though, that started before the pandemic. And clinicians tell me, yes, the social isolation of lockdowns didn't help. We also have to understand, though, that this was a pandemic where more than a quarter-million American children have lost a parent or caregiver. So it was never just about closing schools.

PFEIFFER: Anya, you've been checking in with some of the families and teachers you profiled in your book and for NPR. So you've been able to track them over time. What are you hearing?

KAMENETZ: It's really heartbreaking, Sacha. Debby Rosenthal Harris, she's a veteran teacher originally from Guatemala who teaches in the bilingual program at Buena Vista Horace Mann, which is an elementary school in San Francisco that serves a really largely low-income immigrant community. And she was putting in 12-hour days when I first talked to her, translating her kindergarten class into online videos. When I talked to her recently, I was really surprised to hear her say...

DEBBY ROSENTHAL HARRIS: We worked so hard and it didn't make a difference. We should have stayed in school.

PFEIFFER: Does that mean, Anya, that she, at one point, supported the school closures and now questions whether they were worth doing?

KAMENETZ: When I first talked to her, she was very concerned about her own safety. Now she agrees the decisions were made with a lot of uncertainty and fear. And San Francisco, of course, had some of the longest closures in the country. Now she's seeing this terrible toll in her students who are now in third grade. They need even more support than before. They have even more struggles with basic needs than they did before and with mental health. And Rosenthal Harris says they just don't seem acclimated to the classroom in the same way.

ROSENTHAL HARRIS: I have two kids that walk out of my room at any given point when they just don't feel like doing something. I never experienced that.

PFEIFFER: Anya, my husband is a seventh-grade science teacher, and that story that teacher just relayed reflects or sort of echoes some of the stories he's been coming home with. He feels like COVID changed his students in a fundamental way. So I assume that what you're hearing is kind of common around the country.

KAMENETZ: It absolutely is. And, you know, certainly, there are kids who are resilient, who are thriving. We should recognize that. But the levels of challenges are just a lot higher than they were before.

PFEIFFER: Anya, how do we emerge from all this?

KAMENETZ: Well, Sacha, I'm out there ringing the bell that we don't stop paying attention to this. A huge, huge emphasis I'm hearing is on mental health and well-being for children and for healing burnout in their caregivers and their teachers. Debby said that many of her colleagues have left, some in the middle of the year. And we see schools making efforts, you know, to invest in mental health, in social and emotional well-being, but they can't do it alone, I mean, especially when you think about the community-level effort that's going to be required for these children who are still out of school, who may be drifting into paid work. So it's really all of us who have to take a role in supporting kids and mentoring them and getting them back on track.

PFEIFFER: Anya Kamenetz used to cover education for NPR. Anya, thank you.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.