Emily Oster on opening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic : Planet Money Emily Oster wanted to understand the risks of opening schools. So she started a massive data collection campaign. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

Opening Schools And Other Hard Decisions

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So let's just start, like, in the before times (laughter) whatever. January 1, 2020, who were you, and what was your job?

EMILY OSTER: So my job was professor of economics at Brown University. And I was also a person who had written two books about pregnancy and parenting.

GOLDSTEIN: This is Emily Oster. Her books - they're called "Expecting Better" and "Cribsheet" - take basically a data-driven approach to the everyday questions parents face.

OSTER: So thinking about breastfeeding and circumcision and potty training and kind of what does the data say there.

GOLDSTEIN: And how old are your kids, by the way?

OSTER: They are 5 and 9.

GOLDSTEIN: Prime kid age.

OSTER: Prime kid age.

GOLDSTEIN: This February, Emily started an email newsletter called Parent Data. The idea was to do more of the things she did in her books. You know, in the first issue of the newsletter, she recommended a favorite baby carrier and parsed a new study on the relationship between antibiotics and allergies. And then, as they say, the pandemic hit.

OSTER: People are like, I'm so worried about kids getting this. Like, how big a deal is it for kids and babies? You can be like, oh, here's this study of, like, 25 people in China. That's all we have. You know, like, basically that's it - and ended up writing a lot about it here's the data we have, but, you know, we just don't know. And I think that there's a sort of realization. There's a kind of message and a way of helping people understand this, which is to say we just don't know, and you're still going to have to decide.

GOLDSTEIN: Emily started writing about the impossible fact of this moment. Even in this time of uncertainty, you still have to gather the best evidence you can find and make decisions about how to get through life.

OSTER: You're still going to have to make choices and move forward, even though we don't know. And also, the downsides are really big in all directions, and that's just really challenging.

GOLDSTEIN: Hello, and welcome to the year 2020. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Today on the show, how Emily Oster used her newsletter to launch a massive nationwide data-gathering project that may help answer one of the most pressing questions in America right now - when should kids go back to school in person? But first, she tells us about how to make decisions even when we don't have enough data and every option seems bad.


GOLDSTEIN: For today's show, I called up Emily Oster, Brown University economist, newsletter writer, data collector. And the first thing we talked about was how in the thick of the crisis this spring, she tried to lay out a way for people to really think through the kinds of hard decisions that we all suddenly had to make.

So on May 18, you wrote a newsletter. And the headline on the newsletter was Grandparents & Day Care. And then the subhead, the thing right below the headline, was, this post cannot possibly live up to what you want.


GOLDSTEIN: That's a good subhead.

OSTER: It's a good subhead. But I did - I felt like in that moment, like, people were like, oh my God. I can't wait for you to tell me what to do. Like, I'm just waiting.

GOLDSTEIN: For you to tell me the answer - yes, it's OK, or no, it's not OK. Yes, go see the grandparents, or no, don't go see the grandparents. That's what people want.

OSTER: Like, you're going to be so disappointed when you find out that I do not have your answer.

GOLDSTEIN: What Emily does in this essay is she sets out a five-step system, a way to think about making, really, any hard decision.

OSTER: So the framework is start by - step one, frame the question. Think about the choices, the - sort of the things you're trading off, what are really your options. A lot of people talk to me about this, like, should I see my parents now? OK, it's only possible to think about the answer to that if you have articulated or what. So is it like should I see my parents now, or should we wait for a vaccine? Or should I see my parents now, or should I see them in two weeks? So I think just really, like, trying to articulate what do you see as the choices is something people had not really done. They had sort of - were just thinking about should I do blah, yes, no, without thinking about what would be implied by no.

GOLDSTEIN: So that's step one, frame the question. What's step two?

OSTER: So step two is mitigate risk, really thinking about, you know, in these whatever two or three options that I've articulated, how can I make them as low-risk as possible?

GOLDSTEIN: Sure. OK, step three?

OSTER: Step three was then to evaluate that risk. So having sort of thought about the safest way to do this, then sort of really, like, trying to articulate how large are these risks - you know, what is the chance that somebody has COVID? And then, you know, what is the chance that we transmit it, that someone gets very sick?

GOLDSTEIN: That's step three, evaluate the risk.

OSTER: And then the step four was evaluate the benefits, which, you know, I think that is - seems obvious. But somebody wrote to me and said, you know, my mother, she has been really resistant to coming and seeing us at all. But, you know, she - we talked about it, and we were able to come to a place where she, like, came over to see her grandkids, like, socially distanced in the backyard, you know, six feet away wearing a mask. And it was, like, really amazing, and it really helped us all.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, that's nice. That's good to hear.

OSTER: Yeah, it was really nice. That was really nice.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, so that's four out of the five steps. What's the last one?

OSTER: And then the last step was to decide, which just seems facile. But, you know, you do have to make a decision. So, like, often, you finish your decision, and you're like, boy, I had these two terrible options, and I chose the one that I thought was the least bad. And it's still bad, you know? And you're still not - you're still like, if you choose to see your parents, you feel anxious. If you choose not to see them, you feel sad. Like, those are the only two things that can happen. And all you can do is be confident that you made the choice the right way. But then when you're done with it, like, commit to the decision and move on. Don't give it all your mental space forever.

GOLDSTEIN: Clearly, you can use this process for any big decision. And for a lot of non-COVID decisions, the two most useful steps might actually be the two most obvious ones here. At the beginning, think about how to frame the decision you're making. And then at the end, make a decision. Be done with it. Go on with your life.

OSTER: Like, for the first ten years of my relationship with my husband, my mother-in-law was trying to decide whether to get a new couch. And I feel like this really would have, like, helped, you know, if we could just, like, frame the question. Should you keep this couch or buy this additional other couch - this other couch (laughter) that you've been looking at for a decade?

GOLDSTEIN: In a sense, if you spend ten years deciding whether to buy a new couch, you are deciding for ten years not to buy a couch in a noncommittal way.

OSTER: That is true, although she did eventually buy a couch.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) Yeah, well, shoutout to your mother-in-law.

OSTER: Yeah. There - hey, Joyce (ph).

GOLDSTEIN: After the break, Emily uses her newsletter to launch a massive project to help answer one of the biggest questions in America right now - at what point should kids go back to school in person?


GOLDSTEIN: Here's the thing Emily Oster and lots of other people have been trying to figure out for months - are the places kids congregate - day cares, camps, elementary schools, high schools - are they likely to become super-spreader hubs for COVID? In other words, she wanted to evaluate the risk - step three. But in order to do that, she needed data, and good data on this question were weirdly hard to come by. So finally, sort of out of desperation, a few months ago, Emily decided she was going to try and collect data by herself. On June 18, she published a newsletter with the subhead Help Get Data, exclamation mark. And the newsletter included links to two simple Google forms for people to fill out. One of the forms was for schools, day care centers and camps, and the other one was for local governments.

OSTER: I was like, OK, I'm a lady with a newsletter. How about if I try to do this?

GOLDSTEIN: And all you did was have a sentence in your newsletter that says, if you're a child care provider...

OSTER: Then please fill out this Google form.

GOLDSTEIN: ...Please fill out this Google form.

OSTER: That's it.

GOLDSTEIN: And then you click the link, and all it is, is, like, a generic Google Docs form. Like...

OSTER: Yeah, exactly.

GOLDSTEIN: It's like we're fighting the pandemic by having a bake sale or something.

OSTER: (Laughter) Exactly. Exactly.

GOLDSTEIN: I mean, all due respect to bake sales, but, like, come on.

OSTER: Right. And then like a week later, I had, like, you know, a thousand child care centers. You know, like, it's not like that number is infinity. On the other hand, I'm just a lady with a newsletter, you know? I'm not like - I have no official capacity. And then, you know, I did this, and people were like, OK, like, this is the best - people would be, like, posting, like, this is the best data we have on this. I was like, oh, my God. That's horrible. Like, that's a horrible, embarrassing disaster.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) Yes. So this was an embarrassing disaster, and yet it was some of the only child care data that was emerging in the summer. And then as the summer went on and schools started to open, Emily realized once again nobody was reporting good data on schools. Schools might report that they'd had, you know, five cases or ten cases, but sometimes they wouldn't say if the kids were remote or in-person. A lot of the time they didn't report how many kids total were at school. They didn't give you the denominator. So there was no way to learn what fraction of kids were infected.

Now, public schools are too big and too complicated for Emily to track on just, you know, her little Google Docs. So in August, she gets in touch with the National Association of Superintendents and with a tech company that does data analytics stuff, and they decide they're going to do a bigger, more complex version of the things she had tried with her, you know, Google form and newsletter. And schools were interested. Within a few weeks, Emily and her colleagues were getting numbers from schools with hundreds of thousands of students.

OSTER: And September 23 is the day that we, like, launched - that we put this dashboard up. And I put up a post that says - we just called We Have Denominators...

GOLDSTEIN: We Have Denominators - a very nerdy headline, and I like it.

OSTER: We Have Denominators.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah - exclamation mark - denominators, exclamation mark. What does that mean?

OSTER: So it just means, like, we basically - you know, we posted the dashboard with - and what we have at the sort of top of the dashboard if you look at it is infection rates. So in the, like, most recent sort of two-week period that we're covering, which is, like, end of September, we are - you know, our data is covering a little over 200,000 in-person students. And the infection rate is about 0.15% So that's like 1.5 over those two weeks for a school of 1,000 kids.

GOLDSTEIN: And is that a lot? Is that a little? I mean, can we compare it to kids who aren't going to school? Like, what do I do with that number?

OSTER: One is you can sort of compare it to, like, case rates in the population. And it's, you know, probably a bit lower than the case rates in the population, which is kind of what you'd expect if you thought people were basically being infected outside and then kind of just coming to school - some people are coming to school infected...


OSTER: ...Which is probably what - a lot of what is going on.

GOLDSTEIN: Emily says this is a good sign. It suggests that schools, and especially elementary schools, are not petri dishes where everybody is getting sick and spreading the disease, you know, out into the community. Still, the data are very preliminary. It's a relatively small sample of schools. It's only schools that have volunteered to do it. And, you know, it's only been up and running for a month or so. But Emily says data are finally starting to come in from other places. Texas is doing a lot of reporting on its own now, and its reporting not just cases, but total number of students. And it shows similar rates to what Emily's dashboard shows.

OSTER: And sort of as I am processing all this at some point, you know, last week I was like, look; it seems like we're getting - you know, we're getting towards having a picture. It looks like when we're seeing stuff in schools, it is not schools driving huge outbreaks. Schools have some cases because they are reflective of the population. But, you know, that's kind of what we should expect.

And then at the same time, you know, for me, I am starting to read a lot of stuff about distance learning and the sort of, like, perils of remote learning. Like, this is not really working that great for kids. And we are hearing that, you know, from superintendents also - you know, we don't have kids showing up. They're not coming. Even if they have access to Internet, they're not logging on.

And so I just - you know, I came to a point where I was like, I'd like to say something more straightforward. I think we're starting to get a picture of, you know, this being a relatively low-risk activity where the risks are maybe outweighed by the benefits, at least in more places than are doing it. So that's different from saying all places should reopen or that, like, when you reopen, nobody will ever have COVID. But to - you know, the idea that, like, places in Massachusetts with very, very, very low positivity and case rates are not open at all seems like it probably is not good for kids.

GOLDSTEIN: So you're saying there's a lot of places where the prevalence of the disease in the community is low. We know that. We know that it is very bad for kids to have schools closed. The distance learning just doesn't work that well. And you're saying that what you're learning now from this dashboard and from other evidence is schools don't seem to be, like, super-spreader hubs. And from all of those three things, more schools should probably be open than are open.


GOLDSTEIN: You made your decision - step five.

OSTER: I made my decision, yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: Emily says her own kids went back to school in person last month. And then last week, Emily laid out her argument in an article on The Atlantic's website under the headline, Schools Aren't Super-Spreaders.

OSTER: And I think a lot of people - you know, a lot of people - I mean, people reacted in a lot of negative ways, like they do. But I think one of the things people are like, well, you know, we can't be sure. Like, how can we possibly imagine making this decision if we're not sure that the school is safe? Let's just wait for - so we're sure or until we know there's no more coronavirus. But it's not - there's not no cost to doing that. And I think that that's - that we're just kind of missing that piece.

GOLDSTEIN: The damage being done to kids by remote learning.

OSTER: Yeah. There are tradeoffs. I mean, this is like - there are tradeoffs between these things. Neither option is good. But unfortunately, the existence of the pandemic has left us with some poor options.


GOLDSTEIN: For what it's worth, my kids go to public school in person a few days a week here in New York City. The decision the city made was this - as long as the rate of positive tests is below 3%, kids will have the option of going to school in person. If the rate gets above that, the city will close schools again. This seems like a reasonable, evidence-based policy, but it also means that, as with so much about COVID, we cannot just make the decision, be done with it and get on with our lives. We have to keep watching the data.

Are there other data sets we should interview people about? Let us know. We're at planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok - @planetmoney.

Today's show was produced by James Sneed with help from Gilly Moon. Alex Goldmark is the show's senior producer. Bryant Urstadt is our editor. One last thing - we are looking for our next PLANET MONEY intern. It's a paid job. You can do it remotely. You should apply. Go to npr.org/internships. I'm Jacob Goldstein. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


OSTER: I like the people who, like, wear their mask but no helmet on the motorcycle.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

OSTER: OK, that's an interesting choice. I got a five-step framework for you, buddy.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) Let me just break it down there.

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