‘That’s Crazy’: Reopening Schools Is Possible, but We’re Doing It WrongJuly 10, 2020
There’s a right way to reopen America’s schools. It requires a clear-eyed look at the data. It demands a balanced discussion of the benefits and costs—to students, parents and educators.
And it looks very little like the path America is on.
“We really run the risk of drowning out balance by having this be ‘the people who want to reopen’ vs. ‘the people who don’t want to reopen,’” says Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University who has spent the past several months tracking coronavirus.
Oster, the author of two best-selling books that take a data-driven approach to parenting and pregnancy, counts herself among those in the “reopen the schools” camp. She worries that keeping schools closed will hurt kids’ education, hurt the economy, hurt parents—especially moms—and widen the inequities that the pandemic is already causing.
But when it comes to how we reopen, that’s another matter. “Florida has said its schools will open in the first weeks of August,” she says. “That’s three or four weeks from now. That’s crazy,” said Oster. “Based on where we are now, if Florida just opens the doors to schools and has everybody back in a normal way, just with a few masks, then a bunch of people are going to have Covid.”
“We’re telling places, ‘Open your schools! Open your schools!’ Like, with what money? Schools don’t have the money to do what they’re supposed to in a basic setting, let alone in this moment,” said Oster. “I look at the bills and run some of this stuff at Brown. I look at the money we’re going to spend on disinfecting wipes. And it’s millions of dollars—on wipes! I mean, this is expensive for a highly funded Ivy League university. Forget about it for a rural school.”
Since early May, Oster has been sorting through the data about coronavirus at Covid-Explained, a website she launched with other academics and medical experts to give normal people a clear reading of what we really do and don’t know about the virus. She concedes that there is a risk to reopening schools—there is a risk to keeping them closed, too. And she acknowledges the high stakes of that decision can seem daunting.
“One of the things I try to remind people is that we make those calculations all the time,” said Oster. “We allow people to drive their cars and to have swimming pools and do all kinds of stuff we know to be risky, and which—in the case of driving cars—have risks to other people. As a society, we allow some of those trade-offs, even though we might not be thinking about them in exactly this way.”
So, what would we need to happen to safely reopen schools—and how far are we from making that happen? On Thursday, Oster spoke to POLITICO about all of this. A transcript of the conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
Zack Stanton: Let’s start here: What is the case for reopening schools?
Emily Oster: The positive case for reopening schools is that kids learn better in school—quite a lot better. That’s one piece of it. In this experience, we’ve seen pretty large learning losses from kids not being in school. And those losses are disproportionately felt by lower-income students and students with fewer resources. So for the same reasons we worry about the “summer slump,” there’s now many months of summer slump, and the idea of a whole year of summer slump is pretty problematic. The second piece is that unless kids are at school, it’s difficult for parents to work, and that’s going to make it harder to reopen other aspects of the economy.
Stanton: You’re a professor of economics. From an economist’s viewpoint, how do you measure the costs and benefits of reopening schools?
Oster: It’s very, very hard. I just gave you the case for reopening, but I think there’s a case for staying closed, which is largely rooted in public health—and, in particular, concerns about health risks for staff, who are at a much higher risk than students—and the general sense that if schools open, there will be more movement around, and that may itself trigger more cases. That’s the cost side.
From an economist’s standpoint, we want to take this seriously. How large are the potential health risks? What does the evidence say? How large are the potential benefits in terms of, say, long-term impact on kids, as well as immediate impact on their parents and the economy? Think about how to weigh those things. Part of what makes this difficult—and part of why people find economists unpalatable in these discussions—is that ultimately all of those trade-offs are going to involve saying, “I’m willing to take this risk with someone’s health in order to have these other benefits.” That is a viscerally uncomfortable thing to say—and I also find that uncomfortable. I’m a person in addition to being an economist. But one of the things I try to remind people is that we make those calculations all the time. We allow people to drive their cars and to have swimming pools and do all kinds of stuff we know to be risky, and which—in the case of driving cars—have risks to other people. As a society, we allow some of those trade-offs, even though we might not be thinking about them in exactly this way.
Stanton: You’ve written two books about data-based parenting. Part of your approach is being a parent and economist who’s willing to read the data and take calculated risks. But when it comes to reopening schools, it’s not just the risks for your child, it’s every child in town. Does that change the way you approach this conversation?
Oster: Yeah. So I think there’s actually two conversations we can have. One is the conversation policymakers are having. As they make choices, they are facing those trade-offs, and ideally, they are thinking about those trade-offs not from the standpoint of, “What is good for my kid,” but “What is good for the kids and the adults and the public health situation?” Absorbing all of those things. Some of what I’m saying here relies on the idea that we’re weighing those trade-offs not just as parents.
Now, part of what’s odd is that I am also making all these choices as an individual. I’m thinking about what to do with my kid, both in terms of what is safe for them, but also what is safe for the broader world. It’s harder to think about than sleep-training [a baby], where either you sleep-train or you don’t, and the person experiencing that is you and all the people experiencing the repercussions are in your house.
Stanton: Now, it’s like you’re sleep-training a baby, but everyone in town is waking up throughout the night.
Stanton: Schools are the default child care system for most kids ages 4–18. What does life in America look like come fall if schools don’t open up?
Oster: I’m not sure. I think it depends a lot on what we mean by “don’t open up.” The things I’ve seen districts talk about range from classes being totally online, to in-person two or three days a week, to “bring them all back and hope for the best.” New York City announced that kids are going to be in school between 1–3 days a week. For some families, those other days are going to be covered by parents. I think we’ll see more people, particularly women, slowing down their return to the labor force or moving to part-time. There will be some economywide implications around that, particularly for women. There are also families in which it is not an option to go part-time, whether financially or for some other reason. We’re going to see a bunch of kids who go to school, and then on the “off” days, go to home day care or other child care. There are very significant public health concerns around that. If your whole thing is, “I want the kids to be in a ‘pod’ in school, because that’s the safest thing,” and then on the other two or three days of the week, they’re in random other ‘pods’ of childcare or in a home day care with an elderly caregiver and a bunch of kids rotating through, that’s actually substantially more risky. We haven’t really thought about what the alternatives are, and how those may be costly in the same kind of ways.
Stanton: You recently wrote a piece for the Atlantic on the quality of the data about the safety of schools reopening. How good is the data that we do have?
Oster: Terrible. Very bad. Let me caveat that: It is increasingly clear that the ways in which Covid impacts kids healthwise are fairly limited. Most kids don’t get especially sick. It’s not that they can’t get sick, but they tend to have mild infections and infection rates tend to be lower. That’s the piece where the data has come to some conclusion and has been reasonably good. But on the broader questions—When you open schools, how much transmission will there be? Will they be sources of infection? Are there going to be big clusters?—our data is very, very poor.
The data from Europe is pretty encouraging. They reopened schools. And, of course, they’ve seen cases of Covid, but for the most part, they haven’t seen schools as major vectors of infection. At the same time, the school situation in Europe is very different than in the U.S. They took many more precautions. The classrooms were socially distant. There was a lot of mask wearing. Also, Europe is a different place than America. So that data is helpful, but in a lot of ways, it’s hard to learn from. In the U.S., there are some settings we could learn from, like early child care centers that have stayed open. I tried to collect a little bit of data about that, but actually our evidence is really poor. The way that states and official reports come out, it’s very difficult to use the data. Even the small amount of information they are putting out is actually not sufficient to make any decisions with, because it doesn’t contain enough of the right pieces of data. It’s very bad.
Stanton: I imagine that there’ll be some concern about making policy decisions when the data we do have is questionable at best.
Oster: Yeah. What would be great is if states were doing a better job tracking child care settings. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the importance of summer camps, too. Early child care centers are good to track, but it’s not exactly the same age range. A lot of places have opened summer camps; that’s a place you could track. But again, it’s not enough to just say—I’ve seen some things in the media like, “There was an outbreak. There were some cases of this at a camp.” That’s good to know. But what we would like to understand is, say there are 40 cases, how many kids were there? What precautions were they taking? What is happening in all the other camps? We don’t just want to report on the one case where this happened.
Stanton: Do you know which state is planning to reopen its schools first?
Oster: So, Florida has said its schools will open in the first weeks of August. That’s three or four weeks from now. That’s crazy.
Stanton: Florida’s done a pretty miserable job of managing coronavirus.
Oster: Very bad.
Stanton: Are you concerned with Florida as the test case here—that they’ll come back ahead of most other states, and if things go poorly, it’ll deter schools elsewhere from reopening?
Oster: Yeah. I think it could go in directions. But based on where we are now, if Florida just opens the doors to schools and has everybody back in a normal way, just with a few masks, then a bunch of people are going to have Covid. And just to be clear, that may have nothing to do with the fact that they were in school, it’s just that a lot of people have Covid in Florida, and there will be some spread in school because there’ll be some spread everywhere. We’re gonna see that.
It’s very irresponsible to do this in the middle of an enormous outbreak without appropriate precautions. And I am worried that then people will say, ‘Look, we can’t reopen schools safely anywhere.’ Here in Rhode Island, we’re doing the most testing in the nation. The share of people testing positive is about 1 percent. At the moment, we have like 35 people with Covid in hospitals in the whole state. To say that we’re going to look at Florida and say, “They reopened the schools and look what happened. We shouldn’t reopen them at the end of August.” [pause] It’s bad. This whole thing is really—it’s like there’s so little oversight and leadership, and so few resources. And the other piece that’s really frustrating is we’re telling places, “Open your schools! Open your schools!” Like, with what money? Schools don’t have the money to do what they’re supposed to in a basic setting, let alone in this moment.
Stanton: Yeah, the School Superintendents Association estimated that an average school district—something like 3,600 students, eight buildings and 300-some staff—would need $1.8 million just to meet basic reopening needs, like PPE or deep cleaning or—
Oster: Hand sanitizer! We’re doing this at universities, and I look at the bills and run some of this stuff at Brown. I look at the money we’re going to spend on disinfecting wipes. And it’s millions of dollars—on wipes! I mean, this is expensive for a highly funded Ivy League university. Forget about it for a rural school.
Stanton: In thinking about reopening schools, when you break it down into the component parts that are required for that to happen, it’s difficult to imagine figuring out all the moving parts in time. Kids riding school buses: How does that work? Cafeterias and school lunches?
Oster: And recess.
Stanton: Music classes, with kids singing aloud or breathing hot air through instruments?
Oster: Yeah, no singing.
Stanton: Or gym class. Or water fountains. I could go on and on. How do you think through all of that—the component parts of reopening schools?
Oster: One of the things I’ve been emphasizing is a need to decide some big-picture things—what we’re going to do—and then try to tackle these individually. I think what’s very overwhelming for people in these discussions is that we are sort of simultaneously discussing the question of, “Should we reopen, and in what broad sense?” And questions like, “What about the buses?” Really, those questions need to be sequenced. You need to say, we’re going to open two days a week, five days a week, not at all—whatever it is. Make some decision there, and then move on to these individual things. Until you have a basic plan, it is very hard for all the individual pieces to come together. If I’m thinking about buses, that is dependent on whether there are five days of buses or two days of buses or no buses. You need a basic framework and then you’ve just gotta tick through these as much as we can.
Stanton: When it comes to things like students wearing masks, we’ve all seen these viral videos of adults having hissy fits in Costco or Walmart—
Oster: Or Trader Joe’s.
Stanton: —after being denied entry or service because they refused to wear a mask. It’s easy to imagine an amplified trend of that this fall if and when a student or parent is denied entry into a public school unless they wear a mask. Given that some people are refusing to do even the most basic things you’d want them to do to combat coronavirus, what makes you confident that we will be able to do the more complicated and nuanced aspects of this that are needed for schools to open?
Oster: I wouldn’t say I’m confident. I’m not confident. [Laughs] The thing that schools have that is different from some of these other cases is the ability to enforce. Look at something like vaccines. I’ve done a little bit of work on vaccination compliance in California. California has a pretty significant anti-vax population. And the vaccination rates were going down, down, down. Schools basically said, ‘You should be vaccinated, but if you write down on a piece of paper that you don’t feel like it, we’ll let you out of it.’ That was the standard policy. And then after the [2014-2015] Disneyland measles outbreak, California passed a very stringent vaccination law, which said basically, ‘If you don’t have your vaccine, you either don’t go to school, or we’ll call up a doctor and schedule all of your vaccines.’ And vaccination compliance rates went up immediately. If you tell people you can’t enter a public school unless you get vaccinated, yes, a few people are going to be the vaccination equivalent of the guy in Trader Joe’s who refuses to wear a mask to get his Brussels sprouts.
What’s potentially more problematic is individual school districts. People have written to me: “What do you suggest I do? The school superintendent in my district thinks the coronavirus is a hoax.” Well, if that’s the case, then I don’t see how you’re going to get people to wear masks, because it’s not a problem with the people; it’s a problem with the leadership. That’s the piece I’m more worried about.
Stanton: So let’s say that schools are mostly safe to reopen, but not perfect. Who should be making the cost-benefit calculus as to whether a school or district reopens? Teachers? Parents? Districts? States? The Trump administration?
Oster: Not the last one. At the end of the day, this decision is going to need to be made by probably some combination of the state and the school administration. But one of the pieces that’s really missing from a lot of the discussion at this point is input from teachers. There’s a lot of teachers groups—unions, yes, but not just unions—who feel like basically these choices are being made for them. And they’re very nervous. I do see the perspective of the administrators, which is, ‘We’re trying to think about everybody, and we don’t have time to fight.’ But there is a point to listening and hearing people’s concerns, and also trying to make teachers and staff understand the ways in which, hopefully, we will be protecting them. I’ve been pushing for routine [coronavirus] testing for teachers. Spread among teachers in a school is probably more important than spread from kids to teachers, based on what we know.
Stanton: Within the last couple of days, there have been reports that the White House is planning to release its own guidelines for school reopenings—
Oster: God only knows what that will involve.
Stanton: —and saying the CDC’s guidelines are too restrictive. The CDC director said it was “not the intent of the CDC to be used as a rationale to keep schools closed.” What are the risks of school reopenings getting politicized?
Oster: As these things get politicized, the ability to have a balanced discussion about it deteriorates. I’ve found that even in the last couple of days. I am basically more pro-school reopening than some people, but I’m trying very hard to sort of take a balanced view. Yes, it’s important for kids and the economy, but we need to be very careful to do it safely.
But I’m finding myself being like, “Oh my God. The person agreeing with me is Donald Trump. That’s not a comfortable place.” And they’ve taken, like, a totally different, less nuanced approach—like we have to just reopen at all costs.
We really run the risk of drowning out balance by having this be “the people who want to reopen” vs. “the people who don’t want to reopen.” I think we could all agree that schools are important. I think our question is, how are we balancing these risks and benefits? But that’s not the president’s question.
Stanton: How concerned are you about the way that this whole experience will imprint on kids for the long term?
Oster: My big concerns really revolve around kids who are in lower-income circumstances, who are going to experience learning losses and the sort of trauma associated with just how difficult some pieces of these last few months have been. And kids who lost family members—there’s a lot going on there. Certainly, there’s some increased anxiety in kids; I suspect that is manageable, and probably people are feeling it more now than they will in the long term. But I think if we don’t open, if we don’t have good schooling next year, things are going to be worse.
Stanton: Final question: What’s your advice to a parent who wants their child to return to school, but is really nervous and unsure about all of this?
Oster: The main thing I would say is this: If your kid is healthy and not immunocompromised, then the risks to them are really quite low. And if you are healthy and not immunocompromised and relatively young, the risk to you is also pretty low. We really don’t have a lot of examples where kids are the index case in a household. In that sense, the data is reassuring.
But the other thing I would tell people is that even within your family, you have to make a choice you’re comfortable with. And if you feel like you are not comfortable with your kid going back to school, and you think you can manage it at home, that is a totally legitimate choice and one you should feel comfortable making.
Part of what’s hard about this is everybody’s managing this for the first time, and it is sort of like this macrocosm of other parenting things. It’s like, “How could you make that choice? What are you, afraid of the coronavirus?” Yeah! I’m afraid of the coronavirus! It should be OK to say, “Yes, I am uncomfortable. This does not work for my family.” Just like some of us are going to say, “You know, I’ve thought about this, and I think the best thing for my family is for my kids to go back to school.” I think we have to try to be nice to each other. That’s my message: Try to be nice to each other.