“The children do not need to be fixed. They are not broken. They need to be heard.”
~ Therea Thayer Snyder

While the fights and arguments over whether to bring students back to the classroom in a COVID world continue, many parents are worried about whether their children are “losing out” or “falling behind” on tests and academic milestones. As the college admissions cycle continues to be in a spin-the-wheel moment (one university saw a 100%+ increase in applications; another saw a drop of 40%), there is great concern that any disruption in carefully curated course selections may further disrupt an already disruptive year.

The reality is that for many children, inequities to access have already been creating “lost” years. A global pandemic *merely* exacerbated inequities further. A McKinsey study analyzed that going to online school put White students one-to-three months behind in math – and students of color three-to-five months behind. By the end of the academic school year, this gap is projected to widen by 15-20 percent. And it’s not just 2022 we should be concerned about. McKinsey estimates a GDP loss of up to $271 billion a year by 2040, with the disproportionate burden placed on people of color. Before we throw our hands up and say, well, we must return as quickly as possible to the same bubble tests to assess a student’s “intelligence,” let’s remember that this “lost” year(s) isn’t a simple blip in business-as-usual. We will have many more lost years if we don’t reexamine what this year of learning means for every student and their communities.

Forty-year veteran educator Therea Thayer Snyder wrote a powerful, must-read piece, reminding us that during this “lost” year(s), “there is no assessment that applies to who [the children] are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year.” She and other educators are not arguing that children shouldn’t be learning how to read or write or do ‘rithmic to the best of their ability. Of course, they should continue learning and aiming for their big hairy audacious goals (BHAG). But just because children may have stopped taking the big yellow school bus, they haven’t stopped learning.

During this “lost” year(s), children are learning the psychological challenges of limited social interaction time critical to their development of social intelligence, creativity, and empathy – skills necessary for academic performance. They are learning the emotional heaviness of uncertainty – when they can see their grandparents or whether their parents are going to have jobs. In one German study, four out of five children report feeling burdened by the pandemic. They are learning how to battle Zoom fatigue and lack of motivation in a virtual world despite many eager and amazing teachers going above and beyond. They are learning about the fragility of a system that is supposed to provide access to education and nutrition. A UNICEF and World Food Programme report noted that over 39 billion in-school meals have been missed, with 24 million schoolchildren at risk for dropping out, due to the pandemic.

When students can safely return to classrooms in larger numbers to whatever “new normal” looks like, will we revert to bubble-score sheets and forget the lessons the children have learned during this “lost” year(s)? Will we overlook the fact that during these months and months away from classroom, children have been living and crafting the very history the history books will make note about the world during the COVID-19 global pandemic? Will we overlook the histories being made now of how humanity showed up during a global crisis?

History is written by the victors, so the saying goes.

So who is winning now?

Historically (no pun intended), there is often a “regular” history we learn about. As books try to “diversify,” they sometimes add sidebars to include the “other” voices, further suggesting a delineation of “normal” and “not normal” perspectives on history. So whose history will be dried in typeset ink (presuming there will still be printed textbooks) ten, twenty, one hundred years from today?

We are spinning the web of history at this very moment, each and every one of us, including the children. While there are human interest stories about so-and-so’s experience during this time, who is threading these stories together to make sense of it all (One great benefit of a decentralized social media age is that more voices – whether you like or not – are captured for posterity)?

We know that stories offer a way to share information, nudge conversation, and help children (and adults) process confusing times and confusing emotions. As author-illustrator Peter H. Reynolds noted, “great children’s books are wisdom dipped in words and art.” Fortunately, there are new books available to read to and with children about staying home and wearing masks to help make sense of the pandemic.

While we are telling stories to children, who is listening to the stories from children? As Therea Thayer Snyder wrote, “when the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told…. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history.”

This cannot be a what-I-did-last-summer back-to-school essay exercise, but an ever-evolving, living history-in-the-making. What was happening behind the blacked-out Zoom square in virtual classrooms? How might we listen and incorporate children’s stories during this “lost” year(s) as a part of the living history that is currently being crafted?

  • Listen to children tell the story

Rather than going “back to business,” we need to allow children to tell their stories – without adult filters or adults jumping in to offer a “better” version. Rather than crafting their stories to fit with our realities, let’s invite the children to share their own truths, to document their stories, and to let them recognize that their perspectives and their words hold power.

  • Help children make sense of their story

Unless we are using story as a therapeutic tool, we often listen to children’s stories by smiling, nodding, and then patting them on their heads before forgetting about it ten minutes later. Rather than ascribe meaning to the story for them (“oh, they were upset because…”), let’s give them space and ask curious, open questions to help them discover their own meaning out of their experiences.

  • Connect children’s stories to their place in the world

While we often view a child’s story as a momentary experience, that story may stay with them for a lifetime. If they don’t have support in understanding how it fits with the broader fabric of the human experience, we lose an opportunity to learn, and the story can become a point of great confusion. Helping children connect their stories is essential to helping them recognize their agency as individuals who play an active role in influencing the wider human condition.

Children’s stories are part of the active and ongoing process of making history. If we treat their stories as individual, singular examples rather a collective testimonial, we may “lose” on the wisdom of children. The invitation stands: who and how do we capture these stories and weave them together to make sense so that this “lost” year(s) doesn’t get lost?