Back-to-school in the era of COVID-19: what the data says
Emily Oster
American economist, professor at Brown University, bestselling author of Expecting Better and Cribsheet, and contributor at COVID Explained

This Fall, “back-to-school” will be different than anything we’ve ever experienced. Parents are grappling with in-person or distance learning and many school districts are still deciding on the safest way to start the academic year: full-time in-person, full-time remote, or a hybrid of the two. Our guest, Emily Oster, is an economist at Brown University, the author of two bestselling books about parenting, Expecting Better and Cribsheet, and a contributing author to COVID Explained, a website that takes an unbiased, data-driven look at the virus and its impacts. She explains what data and science are telling us about the risks of kids of all ages contracting and spreading COVID-19, and what needs to be considered in order to safely re-open schools.


Listen to this episode to learn:

  • What the current data says about different age groups of children and their associated risks of contracting and spreading COVID-19
  • The top factors – based on data – to consider when deciding whether to send your child to school or day care in-person versus have them participate in distance learning
  • What the U.S. can learn from other countries, including Israel, Sweden, and Germany, that have re-opened schools for in-person instruction
  • The challenges facing college and university campuses this Fall, including surveillance testing and social distancing measures
  • Why parents, schools, and communities need to be realistic about planning for the inevitably of COVID-19 in schools
  • The pros and cons of alternative learning models, like “pandemic learning pods”


For more information, visit www.explaincovid.org.


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Back-to-school in the era of COVID-19: what the data says

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast. Brought to you by Care at Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a parent is hard. No matter where you live, the upcoming school year is about to get a lot harder for both kids and parents. Today. I'm happy to welcome back Emily Oster onto the podcast. She's an economist at Brown University and an author of two bestselling books that take a data-driven approach to pregnancy and parenting, Expecting Better and Cribsheet. Emily is a contributing author to the website COVID Explained, which takes an unbiased look at the data and the facts about the virus. She's with me today to talk about back to school in the era of COVID-19. What does the data say about kids in the virus? Is it really possible to safely reopen schools this fall? What happens if we can't? We talk about these questions and a lot more in what I think you will find to be an interesting conversation as you start to navigate the upcoming school year, have a listen. Emily, welcome back to equal parts.

Emily Oster: Thank you for having me.

Emily Paisner: You've been writing a lot about what the data is telling us about COVID-19 and sending our kids back to school this fall, there's a lot of information and misinformation out there. Parents are really struggling with what's best for their kids socially, academically, of course, they're concerned about their health. Let's just start with the facts. What is the data telling us about the risk of kids getting sick from COVID-19?

Emily Oster: This is a place where I think our data is pretty consistent. Fortunately, it is quite reassuring. Kids are less likely than adults to get COVID-19. They tend to get less sick. They do get it. They often have mild or even totally symptomatic infections. While there have been examples of kids who have been very sick and there have been a very small number of pediatric deaths, mostly in kids with other preexisting conditions, it is, in general, a very, very low risk, much lower risk than they would be from something like the flu, for example.

Emily Paisner: What about kids spreading the virus to others?

Emily Oster: This is where our data is a little bit more mixed, I would say. Sometimes people have been saying, "Kids can't spread the virus." That's definitely not true. We certainly have examples, many examples where kids have spread the virus to other people in their household or elsewhere. What does seem to be the case is that particularly for younger kids, kids say under 10, they seem to transmit much less efficiently than older people. In that sense, the sort of kids are conditional and being infected. I would say most for younger kids, it looks like they transmit less than for older kids they probably transmit a similar amount. But for all younger people, they are less likely to be infected. If you multiply like the chance of infection times transmission, that also lowers the risk associated with kids, but not to zero

Emily Paisner: Children have been primarily quarantined since all of this started as parents, they've been doing the best they can to keep them socially distanced from others. Do you think we have enough data about how this virus impacts kids because they have been so secluded for this time?

Emily Oster: Yes, I do because that seclusion has not been uniform across the world or even across the US so people say, “Kids are really secluded,” but actually, there a lot of essential worker childcare centers that have been open pretty much this whole time. They actually have seen a bunch of cases where kids are out and they're not all secluded. More than that, we have a lot of data from other countries, places where schools either never closed, in place like Sweden or have reopened in much of the rest of Europe. We've seen very similar things in terms of low risk for kids. That piece of the data I think is good enough, at least for the conclusion about kids not getting very sick.

Emily Paisner: You've mentioned learnings from other countries. Can you talk a little bit about that? What have we learned from some of these other countries and their experience with going back to school?

Emily Oster: Sweden is a predominant example of a place, it never closes schools at all. Then there are a number of places that reopened Denmark, France, UK, Israel, Germany. That data is largely reassuring, although the details differ a bit across place. In most of those places, schools do not seem to be very significant vectors of infection. They don't seem to be places where there are very large outbreaks. They also, in these cases, do not seem to contribute a lot to the kind of overall spread. I would say two caveats to that. One is that in almost all of these places, schools were opened at a time when the virus was relatively in control, so not in places where there 20% of the people are testing positive. The other thing is the experience in Israel was somewhat different. They actually did have a couple of large outbreaks. You people have talked a lot about the details of why, they opened, for example, they opened older kids' schools at the same time as younger kids' schools, and they didn't require masks as extensively as much as the rest of Europe, and there were a few other things. That's more of a cautionary tale. Most of the data on school openings, at least in Europe actually is pretty reassuring.

Emily Paisner: You've recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called What Will Schools Do When a Teacher Gets COVID-19? If schools open and a student, a teacher or staff member gets a virus, what is the best strategy for what needs to happen next?

Emily Paisner: That article had a couple of points. The first one was exactly in your phrasing of the question. You said, “What happens if that’s a death?” That's not the right way to put it. I would say what happens when, because the truth is, we're in the middle of a viral pandemic, and a lot of people have COVID. That means that when we open schools, there will be people who come to school who have COVID, that is different from the question of people getting at school.

If we think about what is our goal when we open schools, what are we trying to achieve? We are trying to achieve people not getting COVID at school. It is not possible to use the schools to achieve people not getting COVID anywhere. I wanted to frame the kind of realism here that we're talking a lot about prevention and let's make sure that we don't have people get COVID at school, and that's all really important. We need to recognize that people are going to come in with it no matter what. The question is what do we do with that?

There are many different probably reasonable plans. Some of the ones that I've seen, I think probably make the most sense are things like if there's a positive case in the classroom, the classroom is quarantined for some period, or maybe just more carefully monitored for some period. If there's some number of cases in the school, five cases, three cases, some cutoff, then the school closes for some period of time. The exact details of what you would want to do there, probably need some input from an actual doctor.

What I would say is that there needs to be a plan and a plan that is articulated ex-ante, that is not in the moment of the first case be saying, "Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do?" You really need to have set in advance, "Okay, here's what we're going to do and here are all the steps," because that's how you're going to get people to feel comfortable, and also to understand really what's coming.

Emily Paisner: Which is interesting, because I think we're hearing from schools about three versions of their plans, whether that's full-time in school or full-time distance learning or a hybrid model. But no one's really talking about like you said when this happens, what the plan is.

Emily Paisner: For me, probably the reason this is so important is because if you told me every time we have a case of anyone associated with the school gets COVID in or out of school, we're going to close the school for two weeks, then really, you're just telling me school is an opening. Then, I need to be planning for that. That's would be in some ways too bad. I think that's too conservative, but at least then I would know what I'm planning for. I think for parents, the uncertainty, part of this is a really challenging piece on top of all the other challenging pieces.

Emily Paisner: Exactly. So much uncertainty and so much unknowns. I know that you are a parent, as am I. When you're thinking about this decision based on the data that you would take into consideration around sending your kids back to school or daycare in-person, or having them participate in distance learning, what factors are at the top of your list that are helping to make this informed decision?

Emily Paisner: One piece is just thinking about the ages of my kids. My kids are pretty young. I think that I might choose things differently if they were older, partly because the risks are lower for younger kids, but also partly because the benefits are much higher. Even, for my two kids, I have a fourth-grader, an incoming fourth-grader, and an incoming kindergartner. When I think about what are the downsides of distance learning, for my fourth grader, I think it would be great to have her have some social time in her classroom. In terms of learning, I think she's okay.

For my kindergartner, it's going to be much harder to learn in a distanced manner. I think the other things that I hope many parents are probably thinking about, should be thinking about are, what are the kinds of precautions that my school is taking, what are the handwashing, masking, et cetera policies that they have, but then also like, how important is this for my kid? Again, some of that is about age, but some of that is about, how good is your kid at distance learning.

Even kids of the same age are going to differ a lot in whether that is a mode that they find efficient, or that's a mode that they work for them. I guess, the last piece is what is the flexibility of the parents? Do you need your kids to be in school so you can go to your job? Which is true for many of us. Do you have other sources of supervision that you could take advantage of? I think all those things are going to have to come together for families to actually make good choices here.

Emily Paisner: You mentioned you might have a different decision if your children were older. What about these kids that are supposed to be going to college in the fall? A lot of these universities and colleges seem to have a variety of different plans. Some are fully online, others are doing testing on site. What do you think needs to happen at these colleges to make it a safe return for students?

Emily Oster: Colleges are hard. We have a lot of challenges. At a minimum there needs to be a pretty extensive testing program. I think that that's something that colleges are going to have access to in a way that schools will not. I think that they should invest more because it's a higher risk population and because there'll be living residentially, and so on. Thinking about some systematic, not just availability of testing when people are sick, which is something we should all have, but actually doing a more aggressive surveillance. There was a debate in JAMA a few weeks ago about whether you need to test college students every two days, or whether it's enough to do a random sample.

It gives you an illustration of heavy amount of testing that a lot of universities are thinking about. The huge challenge for universities is going to be in modifying behavior and having college students buy in to the idea that they need to wear masks, and they can't go to parties and that bars are off-limits. I hear a lot of people saying, “We can't expect that of students. They'll never listen to us all. They're only here to go to bars and parties.” As a professor, I guess I would like to think that the students were also partially arriving to learn. I'm hoping that we can have them, at least make some behavioral modifications that will move in a positive direction. It's a really scary set of decisions I think for a lot of colleges.

Emily Paisner: One of the things that COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated is the economic impact of our nation's childcare crisis. Frankly, it's disturbing how many people, particularly women, are having to leave the workforce right now in order to balance and manage their kids not having care with the need to provide care for them and teach them. What do you think the effects on our economy will be in the short term and the long-term if our kids are home this school year, even if it's for short term or long-term? Can our economy really handle this economic strain that it's come up against?

Emily Oster: What we're going to see is a lot of women dropping out of the workforce. It’s inevitable. you know, schools were providing childcare for a lot of people and that's of course not all they're doing. I've said that many times when people say, "School is not just a childcare solution." Yes, that's true, but for many people, it is other things, the place that their kid goes during the day when they go to their job. I think in the absence of that, we will see a lot of parents decide that it makes sense for one of the parents, and probably some good fraction of the time, more than half let's say, that would be the woman if there's a man and a woman in the household.

We'll see women drop out of the labor force and that will have long-term consequences for their individual careers for sure. What will be the impacts on the economy in a large sense, I think is a little bit more challenging to think about it. Because it depends on how long this lasts, how adaptable we become. Certainly, I think it's not good.

Emily Paisner: It's pretty devastating to think about the hit that women are going to take in the workforce, considering all the progress that we've made over the past several years.

Emily Oster: Yes, it's very- I find it very depressing. There's like so many different levels of that impact. There's impacts on women who are in more essential roles and thinking about how are they going to- if you're a low-income single mom, how are you going to manage this with your kid? What is the impact on the kids? Even in my job as an academic I look at it like what's going to happen tenure for women who work during our faculty right now, who have small kids at home who were going to lose the next year basically homeschooling their kids, because they're the ones with the flexible jobs while their male colleagues don't have that burden. Then, we're going to be stuck with an even worse gender ratio in the academy. It's very depressing.

Emily Paisner: There's been a lot of talk and planning amongst some parents about setting up pandemic learning pods for their kids this year in order to keep them safe and on track academically. What can you tell us about pod-based learning?

Emily Oster: I think that there's a couple of different things going on. They are not all as nefarious and yucky seeming as each other. I think there's one thing people started talking about, which was like, here are all these very rich parents who are going to start their own micro school. They're going to hire a teacher and it's going to be only for the rich and people who are outside the 1% or the 0.1% are going to be left to their own devices. I think we certainly will see some of those micro school structures creep up, but what I think we're going to see much more of, is parents either getting together and sharing the burden or hiring somebody who's not a teacher but more of a supervision kind of person to supervise a group of kids together.

I think a big piece of that is that actually a lot of what you're doing in school, particularly for younger kids, is learning how to be social and doing socio emotional learning and trying to operate in an environment. Also, kids really need to see other kids. I think that there's a sense in which like, people are just going to want to get together in groups, whether they're social or learning based, just so their kids we'll see some other kids if they're not in school. I think we will see a lot of these pods.

My guess is, many of them will be things like, we get together for two hours in the morning, and we do a little bit of our remote learning together. We have some recess together so our kids have some social engagement. Maybe we switch off whose house it's done, or we do it outside with different parents supervising. I think this stuff is very complicated. Their social interactions are very complicated. I am not sure quite where everyone will land on that.

Emily Paisner: What is keeping you up at night when you think about this upcoming school year?

Emily Oster: Mainly, it's just the fear that my kids will not open at all. I think at this point, they've said that they would like to open. Rhode Island is trying to open their schools. It's not really clear where we're going to land. I would be happy even if it opened for a few hours every day, not so much for the childcare, although I'll take that too, but just so my kids can be in an environment with other with other people. The other thing is I'm struggling a lot with the broader conversation around school re-openings, where I feel like there are a bunch of places that reopened that from a public health standpoint really should not.

A bunch of places where the virus is going up, where it's very, very high rates, where they've opened with no masks, with no distancing just as if everything is normal. Of course, there's going to be huge outbreaks when that happens. Then, at the same time, a lot of places where I think it is more feasible to open, where the rates are lower, we're seeing a lot of resistance to doing so. I feel like somehow the places that should open are staying closed and places that should not open are opening. I feel like the conversation is not really about science, but really about something else.

Emily Paisner: Agreed. Agreed. Emily, can you tell me what your most optimistic about in terms of kids going back to school this year?

Emily Oster: I will say I think if we can manage to open some schools, particularly elementary schools in relatively low prevalence areas, I think that we will see that they will not actually have a tremendous number of cases, and that there will be big benefits to kids in being in school. I think if we can get over that hurdle, in a few places of just opening and normalizing, I think we'll realize that kids are adaptable, but also that the dynamics of the virus, if we manage it well mean that we can have schools and we can benefit our kids. That's a cautious, optimistic answer.

Emily Paisner: Emily, thank you so much for your guidance today. I know a lot of parents are struggling with all of these unknowns and decisions that are going to happen in the next several weeks. I think that your data driven advice is going to be really helpful for them.

Emily Oster: I certainly hope so. Thank you so much for having me.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care at Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.