The Economist Who Says Schools Are Safer Than You Think
Emily Oster is a Harvard-educated economist at Brown University—not the usual launching pad for gurudom. But she is nonetheless the sage at the center of a low-key cult. She popped onto the scene when her dissertation findings on “missing girls” in China were picked up by Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner but ascended to a higher plane when she applied her background in health economics and statistical methods to pregnancy and childbirth in her 2013 book Expecting Better. She did the same for toddlers and infants in 2019’s Cribsheet; a third book in the series, The Family Firm, will be out this summer.
In a certain parental set, Oster’s books are passed around slightly furtively, with the air of letting someone in on a secret. Her goal is to help parents translate academic literature into actionable items, but she often ends up serving as a counterpoint to the anxious, overcautious parenting advice doled out in glossy mags and on playgrounds.
When you are an economist who tells pregnant women that research suggests it’s OK to have the occasional wine and sushi, you will be welcomed as a liberator. When you explain that sleep training and formula don’t show serious long-term negative effects, you will be worshipped. You will also be vilified by the keepers of the conventional wisdom, of course, and Oster has gotten her share of hate mail.
Enter COVID-19. As the pandemic shuttered schools for months, especially in coastal cities, Oster wondered whether that decision was justified. Unsurprisingly, given how new the disease was, not much definitive scholarship was available. More surprisingly, there wasn’t much good raw data either. No one seemed to be keeping track of what schools were doing and whether there seemed to be any impact on positivity rates.
That’s how Oster found herself serving as a COVID-in-schools data miner and later as a cautious advocate for reopening schools, a case she made in such outlets as The Atlantic, The New York Times, and her own Substack newsletter. Messages like “Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders” and “Parents Can’t Wait Around Forever” have earned her the same mix of grateful relief and furious suspicion as did her previous work.
Reason‘s Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with Emily Oster in December via Zoom, while Oster’s kids were home from their school in Rhode Island for a snow day (“yes, you can watch TV”) and new lockdowns were kicking in as COVID spiked around the country.
Reason: You collected a bunch of data and set up a data dashboard to track COVID in K-12 schools. I’m sure you’re doing a good job, but why wasn’t this being done by, say, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?
Oster: I don’t totally know. There were a lot of failures in federal leadership in this pandemic and this was one of them. There was this opportunity to set up a more centralized, government-run data collection effort, and it just didn’t happen. States were very slow to get started and [had] little consistency across the space. So what prompted us was the realization that there’s a ton of discussion with school reopening in the Northeast and on the West Coast, and we are seeing schools reopen in Georgia, Indiana—places with really high positivity rates. It felt like there was an opportunity to learn, but nobody was getting the information we would need to learn from that.
There are so many federal failures, I don’t know whether this one is worse than some of the other ones; it’s hard to pick which is the worst one.
There’s the old saw about states being laboratories of democracy. States really leaned into that with COVID, didn’t they? We got a strangely robust set of experiments on different variables. What data did you collect and what data do you wish you could have collected?
The core underlying pieces of the dashboard are information on cases, information on enrollments, and in-person counts—we want a rate, and for a rate, you need a numerator and denominator. So those are the two most key pieces.
The second most important [thing] is mitigation strategies: Are places masking? Are they distancing? What can we learn about what works to keep places safe? We have all of those pieces from districts that have decided to be in our study. We have some of those pieces from the couple of states that have been consistent with this kind of reporting. The best reporting comes out of New York, where they actually have, for every school, counts of cases and information on enrollments, and they require schools to put that in. Texas has a similar—not quite as good, but almost as good—infrastructure. So we pulled that down also.
The thing that would have been great is to have somebody tell states: These are the pieces of data you should be collecting. And in particular, actually knowing, at a minimum, the reopening plan for a state or for a district: Are you open or not? That would be great.
I’ve talked to a lot of states and almost none of them have said, “Well, we don’t want to tell you that.” But many of them said, “Well, we don’t know that. We don’t know how many COVID cases. We don’t know how many kids are in school. And we don’t know the reopening models of our districts.”
What are your (preliminary) conclusions so far about school reopening and safety?
I want to step back and say what we we
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