Levinson: I appreciate everybody’s desire to end on an upbeat note. I’m pleased by the public’s recognition of all the things school districts do beyond academics. They’ve seen the importance of schools feeding kids, connecting them with mental-health services and providing medical care and therapy to address disabilities. Schools are the main venue in the United States for social-welfare support for kids.
At the same time, I do want to say, I’m really concerned. Will we look back in five or 10 years and say: “Whoa, schools got $190 billion. Where did that all go? We don’t see the long-term payoff, so it must not be worth spending on schools.”
I think what people don’t get is that we spend $750 billion a year on K-12 education in the United States. When kids lost almost a third of the instructional days in the first year of the pandemic, crudely speaking, they lost out on $250 billion worth of education. The additional federal dollars haven’t even made up that loss, let alone gone beyond it to address children’s additional needs and trauma.
But I don’t think we’ve framed it that way or factored that into our expectations for schools for what this “extra” federal money can accomplish.
I worry that five or 10 years down the line, some kids and young adults will still really be struggling to find their place. There’s a risk that we’ll look back at these pandemic years and say, “Oh, well, that was then.” When in fact some of today’s kids will feel the effects for decades.
I really hope that we can make a long-term commitment to these young people and say: “OK, you got off-track with your schooling then because you felt totally disconnected from your teachers, or you spiraled into depression, or you needed to work, but that’s OK, because we’re here for you now with opportunities. We have Covid scholarships for you to go to college, apprenticeships, paid internships, summer courses — all sorts of on-ramps back into learning.” We need long-term, sustained investments to make up for what we’ve asked kids to sacrifice.
This discussion has been edited and condensed for clarity, with material added from follow-up interviews.
Emily Bazelon is a staff writer for the magazine and the Truman Capote fellow for creative writing and law at Yale Law School. Her 2019 book, “Charged,” won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the current-interest category. Erin Jang is a graphic designer and an illustrator based in New York. She is the author of “How Are You Feeling?” and “You, Me, We!: Two Books for Parents and Kids to Fill in Together.” Jamie Chung is a photographer based in New York.