Coronavirus

She fought to reopen schools, becoming a hero and a villain

The economist Emily Oster offers loads of data-driven advice about children and COVID-19. Many parents live by her words. Others say she’s dangerous.

Emily Oster received both praise and criticism for her views on in-person learning during the pandemic. Jillian Freyer / The New York Times


Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, has a lot to say.

In July 2020, in the middle of the raging coronavirus pandemic, she wrote an opinion essay suggesting that schools and child care centers might be able to reopen safely, noting that working parents “can’t wait around forever.” In her popular parenting books, she tossed away long-standing medical guidelines, arguing that an occasional sushi roll and glass of wine are safe during pregnancy and that breastfeeding is overrated. More recently, she has cast doubt on whether students need to wear masks or remain physically distanced at school.

This steady stream of counterintuitive advice has made Oster a lodestar for a certain set of parents, generally college-educated, liberal and affluent. Many had first latched onto her data-driven child-rearing books. Her popularity grew during the pandemic, as she collected case counts of COVID-19 in schools and advanced her own strongly held views on the importance of returning to in-person learning.

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Some parents said, half-seriously, “Emily Oster is my CDC.”

But others — teachers, public health researchers and labor activists — criticized her, pointing out that she was not an infectious disease expert, nor did she have any deep personal or professional experience with public education. (Her two children attend private school, as did she.) On social media, the reaction could be brutal, with people calling her a “charlatan” and “monster” pushing “morally reprehensible” positions that “endangered many lives needlessly.”

And those were some of the more polite critiques.

None of the pushback has deterred Oster. She is launching an ambitious project to collect data on how schools operated during the crisis. She also has a new book, “The Family Firm,” that will be released in August, aimed at helping parents make decisions about schooling, nutrition, discipline and screen time.

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“I am always out of my lane,” she said, jokingly, in an interview.

Oster emerged as a central figure in the vociferous debate about school reopenings. While not an educational or medical expert, she used her skills as an economist to make a case for in-person learning, using data and logic. And at a time when traditional guidance was confusing and contradictory — masks on or off? — many parents were drawn to her clear and consistent opinions. But data sets, as Oster learned, can’t completely capture the complicated calculations families and educators make about education during a pandemic.

Whitney Robinson, a public health researcher at the University of North Carolina, has been critical of some of Oster’s writing. But she credits the economist with helping a relatively privileged set of parents, including herself, make practical decisions during the pandemic.

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“That really is her gift,” she said. “Synthesizing quantitative studies and spitting out rough guidelines or ways of thinking that can guide choices for upper-middle class, urban, suburban, sort of coastal people.”

Speaking over Skype, Oster was very much the picture of pandemic motherhood. She sat in the basement of her home in Providence, Rhode Island, wearing a casual black T-shirt, an old treadmill nearby. The room was far from stage managed, but it did buffer her from her two young children.

Oster said she doesn’t relish the heated debate about her. “I am, like, a tremendously sensitive person,” she said. “I feel bad about all of it, all of the time.”

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Still, she has never shied away from contentious subjects, and her new career trajectory is a continuation of her boundary-crossing work. She has always enjoyed interpreting academic research on health for a broad audience, and has long been frustrated by what she perceives as impractical parenting advice, which offers blanket rules — “Don’t sleep next to your baby” — instead of research findings that individuals can use to make personal choices.

The same was true during the pandemic, Oster noted. “I’d get questions like, is it better to have my in-laws watch my kid or send them to day care?” she said. “We’ve been told to do neither, but that isn’t a choice” for working parents.

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Indeed, the lack of great choices is one reason the school reopening debate has often been toxic, pitting parents and teachers against each other and one another. White and college-educated parents were more likely to want in-person schooling than working-class parents of color whose families were more likely to contract the virus or die from it, and who had more distrust of schools. Some teachers were eager to stay safe at home, teaching remotely, while others desperately wanted to return to their classrooms.

Amid all this, Oster stepped in to collect national data on COVID-19 cases in schools because, she said, the federal government had failed to do so. By last fall, the database she set up, seeded with information voluntarily submitted by school administrators, suggested that with simple precautions, schools could be operated without significant on-site transmission.

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Her data work was discounted by some teachers union activists because it was funded, in part, by philanthropies that support nonunion charter schools. And it didn’t adhere to traditional research norms; the data collection wasn’t randomized, and initially it skewed toward private and suburban schools.

But eventually, the database grew to include schools serving more than 12 million of the nation’s 56 million K-12 students, including all of the public schools in New York, Florida, Texas and Massachusetts. And despite its limitations, Oster’s conclusions were eventually echoed by research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Union and many independent scholars.

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With a growing stash of evidence under her belt, Oster acknowledged that she became “more extreme” in her conviction that schools should be open, and wrote ever more prescriptively on the subject.

Through her free Substack newsletter and a series of opinion essays, she repeatedly summarized new research, reiterated that children were generally not at high risk to either catch or transmit COVID-19, and offered struggling parents the permission so many of them craved: to go forth carefully with summer camp, day care, in-person school and vacations.

But the question of how to behave during a pandemic is fundamentally different from the question of whether to breastfeed. In an environment of viral transmission, your choice potentially affects many others.

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“That was the hardest to write about,” Oster admitted.

It turned out that many educators would not accept a coolly intellectual framework for balancing risk and reward, especially not one advanced from the environs of Brown University. Public schoolteachers had experienced sealed-shut classroom windows and bathrooms without soap. Backed by their unions, they wanted to work safely at home during the pandemic, just as many of their students’ parents were.

They had also observed that working-class parents of color were the least likely to beat down classroom doors during the pandemic. When urban schools did reopen, many teachers found themselves standing in front of near-empty classrooms.

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Oster had envisioned parents and teachers logging onto school district dashboards, reassured by charts and graphs demonstrating low case rates in schools. But she discovered that data alone would not determine pandemic education policy, nor shape many parents’ choices, at least not in the country’s decentralized, yet highly bureaucratic public school system, rife with labor tensions and stratified by every disparity — race, class, region, politics — that defines American life.

“I had maybe somewhat of a naive approach,” she said.

The fact that Oster wasn’t an infectious disease expert was, at times, a strength, noted Robinson, the public health researcher. Oster did not assume incorrectly that COVID-19 would behave similarly in children to the flu, which initially led many experts to overstate the risks of opening schools.

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Still, Robinson said, Oster’s advice is not equally relevant to all parents, given uneven rates of vaccination by region, race and income. Some parents, even this fall, may opt out of in-person learning.

In some of Oster’s recent writing, “There was a tone of, ‘It’s safe, it’s done,’” Robinson said. “But we can’t predict what is going to happen. COVID is definitely not over.”

Oster has repeatedly acknowledged that while children of all races appear to be equally unlikely to contract COVID-19 within school buildings, overall risks do differ by demographics. Nor is she cavalier about the pandemic’s progression. A recent newsletter on emerging variants concluded, “we need to continue to be vigilant,” while returning to “some normalcy.”

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Despite these caveats, Oster’s prominence has been galling to some educators.

Maya Chavez, a high school social studies teacher in Providence, worked in-person the majority of this school year. Rhode Island was one of the few liberal states to push schools to reopen last fall, in part because of the influence of Oster and other Brown University experts; Oster spoke regularly to state officials.

“There is a serious disconnect between her idea of what school looks like and the reality,” Chavez said. At least 30 students learning in-person at her predominantly low-income school tested positive for COVID-19, among more than 8,000 such student cases statewide. That does not mean students caught the virus in school or spread it there, but it does illustrate the reality that people came into close contact with the virus within classrooms. Several of her students, many of whom live in intergenerational homes, had family members who were hospitalized or died.

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“There is enormous emotional trauma,” Chavez said.

There have been moments of pullback for Oster. In March, she apologized after writing in The Atlantic that unvaccinated children could be considered as protected against the virus this summer as vaccinated grandparents. “I didn’t stress that the situation is different for higher risk children, or emphasize the importance of equitable vaccine distribution,” she wrote in response to heavy criticism.

But on the whole, she sticks by her writing. There is also some uncertainty about whether opening schools increased virus rates in their communities as parents returned to work. But even if it did in some cases, Oster said she questions whether that justifies a policy that led to academic, social and emotional hardship for so many families.

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Perhaps in-school contact tracing and testing could have been better. But “it wasn’t a mistake to open schools,” she said definitively, and more of them should have opened faster. She is sure of it. After all, she has looked at the data.

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