With an introduction by Markus Brunnermeier, Director of the Princeton Bendheim Center for Finance
On Thursday, November 5, Emily Oster joined Markus’ Academy for a lecture on her COVID-19 school dashboard and evidence around reopening schools.
Emily Oster is a Professor of Economics at Brown University.
Remote learning is not as effective as in-person learning, particularly for lower-income students—and we should aim to open schools if we can. Earlier work by Raj Chetty and John Friedman showed that student performance on Zearn, an online math program, declined by larger amounts among lower-income children than their higher-income peers at the start of the pandemic. Oster says that if we can get kids back to school, we should.
The biggest risk of opening elementary schools is virus spread from adult-to-adult. While children can still get and spread COVID-19, we know the health risks of the disease to children are lower than other groups. Further, some recent research suggests living with children doesn’t make it more likely for people to get COVID-19. That said, there are risks for teachers and other adults—and that’s what we should be focused on.
Ideally, the U.S. would have built a national school data collection system over the summer, but moving into the school year there were no national or state-level efforts to do this. Oster says an ideal system would have required schools to report the number of students and staff attending in-person, what type of hybrid in-person/online systems they are operating, what precautions they are taking for in-person learning, as well as COVID cases over time. Oster notes that there was an effort to do this in the UK, and their data suggests opening schools was relatively low risk.
Because this didn’t happen, Oster worked with schools and school districts to collect this information and post it anonymously to her “COVID-19 School Response Dashboard.” New data is posted every two weeks and includes data on about 3 million students, including 1.6 million kids attending school in-person. Oster is currently addressing selection problems with the data that result from the fact that certain types of schools are more likely to participate in the voluntary data collection efforts.
Data from the dashboard suggests case rates at schools are not alarming and schools are not driving infections. The case rate among school staff and high school students (cases per 100,000) is similar to the case rate for the general population, and the case rate for elementary and middle school students is lower than the rate for the general population. A key question is whether schools are driving infections. In NYC, 80% of schools have no cases and about 25% have had only one or two cases. In Rhode Island, cases are higher among students learning remotely.
Oster hypothesizes that one reason transmission is low in schools might be because the environment is structured. She notes that the types of events driving outbreaks are unstructured social activities (backyard cookouts, restaurants, and other social activities) where people might remove their masks or interact more informally.
If local areas are going to restrict in-person schooling, those restrictions should apply to other activities. Oster notes that if some areas are committed to keeping everything open, it makes sense they would also open schools. What isn’t consistent is closing schools while arguing it’s safe to keep other industries open.