What We’ve Stolen From Our Kids

School provides so much more than an education.

In May, twin girls Alma and Clil, and their mother, Anna Michel, wear protective face masks as they await their turn to enter the elementary school where the girls study, in Jerusalem, Israel. (David Vaaknin / The Washington Post / Getty)

About the author: Chavi Karkowsky is a medical doctor in New York City and author of High Risk: Stories of Pregnancy, Birth, and the Unexpected.

In the beginning, the pandemic was a child-care crisis. School was closing today, and then maybe tomorrow. Who would leave work to get the children? Who had to cancel everything? Then it was clear that there wasn’t going to be school, for a week, maybe two, then a month, then the rest of the school year. And then a little while after that, it became clear that in-person summer camp was out too.

And now here we are, staring at September and realizing how much we have taken from our children. Because this pandemic is not just a child-care crisis. At some point, this experience is our children’s actual lives, and they’ve lost something enormous. From the perspective of the kids, the pandemic has meant the profound and abrupt loss of school.

I am the mom of four school-age kids, and I’m also a doctor in New York City, on the front lines of COVID-19 response. March, April, and May were not just abnormal; they were really, really scary. My family made plans, and backup plans: What if I get sick? What if both adults get sick? What if a kid needs to be hospitalized? What if both adults need to be hospitalized? All our plans were bad.

But I woke up every day without a fever, breathing well. So did my husband, and so did my kids. These are blessings of uncountable worth, and I continue to be grateful for them. And during that terrible time, my kids managed. They were frustrated; they were on screens for far too many hours a day, and in the sunshine for far too few. But they were game; they were helpful; they were, generally, loving to one another.

But time went on, and on, and so did the pandemic. Although things in the hospital were getting less terrifying, in my house they were getting harder as school receded further and further away. My older kids became withdrawn, more frequently angry. I couldn’t get my formerly chatty 9-year-old to talk at the dinner table. All my kids started having trouble sleeping. Having a 5-year old and an 11-year old wandering aimlessly and miserably around the kitchen at 2 a.m wasn’t unusual for me. I consulted our pediatrician. I bought some melatonin, and then some more, and now I buy it every month. I hate every part of that.

We’re not alone. I was at the hospital in June, masked and eye-protected, and I asked one of my colleagues how her kids were doing. “Well, we’re all healthy,” she started, as we do these days. “But,” she hesitated, “it’s kind of … Lord of the Flies in my house.”

I nodded: “Same.”

My social-media feed is full of worried friends. One posted about the aggression she’s seeing between her kids: They used to play nicely, and now they can’t really be left alone in a room together without drawing blood. Another was searching for help with bed-wetting, in a kid who had been toilet trained four years previously. Others chimed in about their tweens and teens disappearing into their room for hours, or days, turning difficult to extract and extremely closemouthed. I know that can be normal adolescent behavior, but these kids were cheerful and chatty three months ago.

These are the stories of the most privileged among us: those of us with housing and food, with healthy bodies and steady jobs. The stories will be worse for kids whose families live closer to the edge, or whose families have now gone over the edge. But one thing almost all of us have in common is the loss of school.

School, for some kids, is a basic, important place: It is their source of food, or where no adult hits them, or where they find reliable heat in the winter.

But even for children whose needs are less physical, school is often their entire external world. It is a place where their relationships are not dependent on their parents, where they try and fail and then try and succeed. School is where they make friends and mortal enemies and friends again. School is where my children are not my daughter or son; they are themselves, figuring out who that is every day.

I am not a developmental psychologist; I’m just a mom. But it has always seemed to me that headlong, unstoppable forward development is the normal state of a growing child. In the same way that a shark that is alive must swim, a child who is alive needs to be in a constant state of movement and change. When the forward motion stops, something is very wrong.

With no school, much of that progression, that learning, that schoolyard negotiation—in short, much of a kid’s life outside their house—disappears. And it is becoming clear to more and more of us that much of it may be gone for a long time.

One friend, a longtime teacher, told me: “We’re having trouble deciding whether to open schools, because we don’t agree on what schools are. If you’re optimizing for academic learning, a lot of teachers think you should keep kids at home and make remote learning work for more kids. If you’re optimizing for child care, maybe you go for in-person learning in small pods for K–5 while letting grades 6–12 stay at home. If you’re optimizing for giving kids a meaningful social environment, you absolutely need kids to be back in face-to-face environments.”

That is probably true, but I’ve never before had to choose. School—fairly or not—has generally fulfilled all those different functions for my kids, and probably yours. We are without it now, and whatever comes in September, it is unlikely to be normal. School may open in person, or it may not, or it may open and then close. You might send your kids, or not. I don’t know your area, the prevalence of the coronavirus there, what percentage of people are testing positive, what risk-mitigation strategies your school is employing, or what your tolerance for risk might be. I don’t even know my own tolerance, from today to tomorrow. I just know that the kids don’t seem to be all right.

Among the things we’ve given up to this pandemic, it’s become clear, are our children’s external worlds, and some of their mental health, and much of their joy. We gave that all up, often without noticing. And now we have to live with that, until we make it right again.

We could fix it, you know. We could shut things down, and wear masks, and get enough tests to contact trace and isolate people—if we all worked together, the whole country, united in our goal of giving children what they need. If we did that, we could probably open schools in a few months, in person, safely. We would have to choose schools over bars; we’d have to think big. But if we had the appropriate federal resources and national leadership and shared priorities, we could make things right again.

But we haven’t had the appropriate resources or leadership or priorities. So here we are.