Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, has a lot to say.
In July 2020, amid the raging coronavirus pandemic, she wrote an opinion paper suggesting that schools and daycare could potentially be reopened safely, noting that working parents “can’t wait forever”. In her popular parenting books, she tossed longstanding medical guidelines aside, arguing that an occasional roll of sushi and a glass of wine was safe during pregnancy and that breastfeeding was overrated. More recently, she has expressed doubts about whether students need to wear masks or stay physically aloof in school.
This steady stream of counter-intuitive advice has made Dr. Oster made a guiding star for a specific group of parents who are generally college educated, liberal, and wealthy. Many had clung to their data-driven parenting books first. Her popularity grew during the pandemic as she collected case numbers of Covid-19 in schools and expressed her own views on the importance of returning to face-to-face learning.
Some parents said half seriously: “Emily Oster is my CDC”
But others – teachers, epidemiologists, and union activists – criticized her, pointing out that she was not an expert on infectious diseases or had deep personal or professional experience with public education. (Her two children go to private school, just like her.) On social media, the reaction could be brutal when people refer to them as “charlatans” and “monsters” who hold “morally objectionable” positions that “make many lives unnecessary endanger “.
And those were some of the more polite reviews.
None of the pushbacks did Dr. Easter deterred. She is starting an ambitious project to collect data on school operations during the crisis. She also has a new book, The Family Firm, due out in August, which is designed to help parents make decisions about school, diet, discipline, and screen time.
“I’m always out of my track,” she said jokingly in an interview.
Dr. Oster emerged as a central figure in the noisy debate over the reopening of schools. Although not an educational or medical expert, she used her economist skills to advocate personal learning using data and logic. And at a time when traditional instructions were confusing and contradicting – masks up or down? – Many parents were drawn to their clear and consistent opinions. But records like Dr. Oster learned, the complicated calculations families and educators make about education during a pandemic cannot fully understand.
Whitney Robinson, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, has reviewed some of the writings of Dr. Oster criticized. But she credits the economist for helping a relatively privileged group of parents, including herself, make practical decisions during the pandemic.
“This is really her gift,” she said. “To synthesize quantitative studies and spit out rough guidelines or mindsets that can guide decisions for the upper middle class, the city, the suburbs and the coastal residents.”
Dr. Oster exactly portrayed a pandemic motherhood. She was sitting in the basement of her Providence, RI home, wearing a casual black T-shirt, an old treadmill nearby. The room was anything but staged, but it buffered her from her two small children.
Dr. Oster said she was not enjoying the heated debate about her. “I’m a very sensitive person,” she says. “I feel bad about all of this all the time.”
Still, she has never shied away from contentious issues, and her new career path is a continuation of her cross-border work. She has always enjoyed interpreting academic health research for a large audience and has long been frustrated by what she finds impractical parental advice, the blanket rules – “Don’t sleep next to your baby” – instead of research that Individuals can use it to make personal decisions.
The same is true during the pandemic, noted Dr. Easter Festival. “I would get questions like, is it better to have my in-laws look after my child or send them to daycare?” She said. “We have been told not to do both, but that is not a choice” for working parents.
In fact, the lack of great choice is one of the reasons why the school reopening debate has often been toxic, pitting parents and teachers against each other and against each other. White and college-educated parents were more likely to want a personal school than working-class colored parents, whose families were more likely to be infected with or die from the virus and who were more suspicious of schools. Some teachers were anxious to stay safe at home and teach remotely, while others desperate to return to their classrooms.
June 22, 2021, 5:03 p.m. ET
In the midst of it all, Dr. Oster to collect national data on Covid-19 cases in schools because the federal government failed to do so. Last fall, the database she set up, filled with information voluntarily submitted by the school administration, suggested that schools could be operated with simple precautions without significant on-site transmission.
Your data work has been rejected by some activists in the teachers’ union because it was funded in part by philanthropists who support non-union charter schools. And it didn’t follow traditional research norms; data collection was not randomized and initially shifted to private and suburban schools. But eventually the database grew to include schools serving more than 12 million of the country’s 56 million K-12 students, including all public schools in New York, Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts. And despite its limitations, Dr. Oster finally confirmed by research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Union and many independent scientists.
With a growing supply of evidence in his luggage, Dr. Oster suggested that she became “more extreme” in her belief that schools should be opened and wrote more and more regulations on the subject.
In her free Substack newsletter and a series of opinion papers, she repeatedly summarized new research, affirmed that children in general are not at high risk of contracting or transmitting Covid-19, and offered ailing parents permission to do so many of them longed: to go cautiously with summer camp, daycare, classroom school and holidays.
But the question of how to behave during a pandemic is fundamentally different from the question of whether to breastfeed. In a virus-transmitted environment, your choices can affect many others.
“That was the hardest to write,” said Dr. Easter closed.
It found that many educators, especially those around Brown University, would not accept a coldly intellectual setting for balancing the risks and rewards. Public school teachers have experienced sealed classroom windows and bathrooms with no soap. Supported by their unions, they wanted to work safely at home during the pandemic, as did many parents of their students.
They had also observed that working-class parents of color were the least likely to break classroom doors during the pandemic. When the city schools reopened, many teachers were standing in front of almost empty classrooms.
Dr. Oster had imagined that parents and teachers would log into the school district dashboards, reassured by diagrams and graphics that show the low number of cases in schools. However, she discovered that data alone would not determine education policy for pandemics and would not influence the decisions of many parents, at least not in the country’s decentralized but highly bureaucratic public school system, which is characterized by work tensions and according to all differences – race, class, region – is layered, politics – that defines American life.
“I may have had a somewhat naive approach,” she said.
The fact that Dr. Oster wasn’t an expert on infectious diseases was sometimes a strength, noted Dr. Robinson, the epidemiologist. Dr. Oster did not wrongly assume that Covid-19 would behave similarly to the flu in children, which initially led many experts to overestimate the risks of a school opening.
Dr. However, Robinson said that Dr. Oster’s advice is not equally relevant to all parents as vaccination rates vary by region, race, and income. Some parents may forego face-to-face learning even this fall.
In some of the recent writings of Dr. Oster read, “There was a sound of ‘It’s safe, it’s done,'” said Dr. Robinson. “But we cannot predict what will happen. Covid is definitely not over. “
Dr. Oster has repeatedly admitted that while children of all races seem equally unlikely to be infected with Covid-19 in school buildings, the overall risks differ depending on demographics. It is also not unconcerned about the progression of the pandemic. A recent newsletter on new variations concluded, “We need to remain vigilant” as we return to “some normalcy”.
Despite these reservations, Dr. Oster’s notoriety annoyed some educators.
Maya Chavez, a Providence high school social studies teacher, worked personally for most of that school year. Rhode Island was one of the few liberal states to push for schools to reopen last fall, due in part to the influence of Dr. Oster and other Brown University experts; Dr. Oster spoke to state officials regularly.
“There is a serious discrepancy between how you perceive what the school is like and the reality,” said Ms. Chavez. At least 30 students studying in person at their mostly low-income school have tested positive for Covid-19, among more than 8,000 such student cases across the country. This doesn’t mean that students caught or spread the virus in school, but it does illustrate the reality that people in classrooms came into close contact with the virus. Several of her students, many of whom live in multigenerational homes, had family members who were hospitalized or died.
“There is tremendous emotional trauma,” said Ms. Chavez.
There were moments of withdrawal for Dr. Easter. In March, she apologized after writing in The Atlantic that unvaccinated children could be considered vaccinated grandparents this summer as being protected against the virus. “I did not emphasize that the situation is different for children at higher risk, or emphasize the importance of fair vaccine distribution,” she wrote in response to severe criticism.
But, by and large, she sticks to writing. There is also some uncertainty about whether opening schools increased virus rates in their communities once parents go back to work. But even if this was the case in some cases, Dr. Oster whether this justifies a policy that has led to academic, social and emotional difficulties for so many families.
Perhaps the school contact tracing and testing could have been better. But “there was no mistake in opening schools,” she said definitively, and more of them should have opened faster. She is sure of it. At least she looked at the data.