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How Economist Emily Oster Ended Up at the Center of the Fight Over Schools Reopening

A year ago, schools across the country closed their doors in hopes of slowing the spread of a strange new virus. What happened next depended on a parent’s zip code, their income, the political persuasion of their state officials, and the relative power of their local teachers unions. In the absence of any official advice or guidance — save late-summer admonition from then-President Trump that “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” — bewildered parents were left to navigate whatever options were available to them on their own. That’s when many of them turned to economist, Brown University professor, and pregnancy and parenthood guru Emily Oster for help. 

When the pandemic began, Oster, 41, had just completed her third book. (“Thank God,” the mother of two says, “because I definitely never would have finished it.”) Her first, 2014’s Expecting Better, mined scientific data to dismantle conventional wisdom around pregnancy (and included, somewhat famously, the revelation that an occasional glass of wine is probably fine). Expecting Better inspired a devoted following that helped make a bestseller out of Oster’s second book, 2019’s Cribsheet, which scrutinized studies about sleep training and breastfeeding. For her third, The Family Firm, due in August, instead of offering answers, Oster tries to give parents a framework to work through their decisions themselves. It’s basically a cost-benefit-analysis how-to for whatever questions parents might confront: frame the question, mitigate risk, evaluate risk, evaluate benefits, decide. And amid the challenges of Covid, as parents have been forced to make extremely high-stakes decisions with very little, often imperfect data, the framework is more relevant than ever. 

Oster, a Harvard-educated economist specializing in health policy, was used to fielding questions from anxious moms and dads, but starting last March their queries took on a twinge of desperation: “I started to get questions from a lot of parents, like, How should I think about this? What should I do? Here is my very specific situation: …I’m going to drive here, I’m going to stop at this rest stop — is that a good rest stop?” 

But the most pressing questions Oster confronted were about whether it was safe to send kids back to school. She tried to approach the issue the way she normally does: by looking for peer-reviewed studies that might offer some insight, but the only researchers looking into it didn’t expect to have results until the fall. Without any data with which one might complete step three, “evaluate risk,” the framework was rendered useless.

“I wanted to figure out the answer, and to figure out who was collecting information on this,” Oster says. “And I kind of realized nobody was.” So, with the help of a handful of partners, she decided to collect the information herself. The result was the Covid-19 School Response Dashboard, a clearinghouse of data collected from schools around the country, including the mitigation strategies being employed and the number of confirmed cases. It was the first effort to systematically track how schools were responding to the crisis. The database, which started monitoring schools with just 100,000 students at the beginning of the school year, now includes about 12 million students, roughly half of which are in in-person instruction. 

It didn’t take long to gather enough data for Oster personally to feel comfortable rendering a judgement. In October, looking at the figures in front of her, she wrote a piece in the Atlantic that concluded “schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19.” Like Oster’s early pandemic advice, the article, the dashboard, and the conclusions became popular among parents looking for something — anything — to inform their choices. That popularity also made Oster a target: She found herself on the receiving end of backlash from teachers who felt their safety was being compromised in the rush to reopen, and from epidemiologists who thought that, as an economist, she ought to stay in her lane. Some critics said the dashboard wasn’t adequately representative (the schools that opted-in initially were disproportionately suburban and high-income); others said the numbers gave parents a false sense of security, and endangered the staff.

When the Trump-appointed head of the CDC, Robert Redfield, cited the dashboard as proof that schools weren’t superspreaders, Oster was plunged into further controversy. “We just sort of went to this place where no one was willing to talk about the reality,” Oster says. “It was like anybody who said anything like, ‘Hey, kids need to go to school,’ is a right-wing nut job.” 

Oster, for her part, says she was just trying to find the kind of data she craves to feel confident in her own decision making. “One of the realizations for me through this process has been: Not everybody finds data as helpful as I do,” she says. But there also might be the fact that she’s more comfortable than others with some level of risk. She acknowledges that there are a lot of people who believe “we can’t send kids back to school until we know it’s perfectly safe.” But, she says, “That isn’t the attitude we have taken about anything else. You could have said ‘if even one person dies on the way to school in a car accident, we should never have opened schools.’”

With CDC data now available from one full semester of schools in a range of states, employing a range of mitigation strategies, it seems that Oster was largely correct when looking at the early data from the dashboard in October: Schools have not been associated with substantial community transmission. Today, the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teachers’ unions in the country, has made the collection of centralized data on the number of Covid-19 cases in schools a central demand in their negotiations to return teachers to classrooms. Both the Biden Education Department and the CDC are launching efforts to collect better data on schools — but for a long time, Oster’s database was the closest thing to one.

The experience, it seems, has only strengthened Oster’s conviction that schools should be fully reopened. She has criticized the CDC’s new guidelines — which suggest that only areas with very low infection rates should be open for full-time in-person instruction. Today, only about 4 percent of school kids would qualify under the rules. 

In the meantime, the risks of keeping schools closed have been piling up: Mental health visits to emergency rooms have spiked, test scores are falling, absenteeism is up, and that’s not counting the millions of students who have dropped out altogether. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds have fallen far behind their better-off peers. Parents, particularly mothers, have dropped out of the workforce by the millions — an impact that some financial analysts think could be equivalent to a minor recession. And, according to recent Pew Research polling, more Americans are now concerned about the risk of students falling further behind academically than they are about the risk of students getting or spreading the coronavirus.

It has been an excruciating year for families, full of agonizing choices — and that probably won’t change any time soon. With vaccine trials for children only just beginning, and promised federal funding for improving ventilation, purchasing PPE, and hiring additional school staff still languishing, for now, in Congress, it’s hard to see how that changes before the end of this school year — or even before the start of the next.  

But whatever new challenges the coming months bring, Oster’s advice probably won’t change, either: Understand the risks, figure out if there is a way to avoid them, weigh them against the benefits, and make a choice you can feel confident in. At the end of the day, she says, “when you make these choices, you kind of need to put the risks in context of other risks, and recognize that by living, you are taking some risks.”

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