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8 March 2021updated 30 Jul 2021 10:53am

Emily Oster on why reopening schools is the safest option

The US economist and author explains why we should pay more attention to the social harms of lockdowns.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Professor Emily Oster is probably best known among fathers as “the woman who let my wife have a drink”. In her first book, Expecting Better (2013), the Brown University economist runs through the reams of advice given to pregnant women and separates superstition from science. One of her most controversial conclusions is that there is little data to suggest light alcoholic consumption (one drink a day or less) during pregnancy causes harm – an assertion that set her on a collision course with horrified members of the medical establishment. 

Over the course of the pandemic, Oster, 41, has set tempers rising again with her call for schools to reopen across the US. “Schools are not super-spreaders” read the provocative headline of one of her articles. The subsequent backlash was inevitable. 

Oster is used to controversy – it comes with the territory of using an economist’s lens to examine parenting dilemmas. And analysing the data unavoidably subjects conventional wisdom to a debate about trade-offs. 

Her books dismiss the idea that any parenting choice is risk-free. There may be slight advantages for children who are, for example, breast-fed and raised by a mother who has quit her job, but not if that mother is constantly too exhausted and unhappy to be fully engaged. Similarly, she believes the debate over schools needs to consider not just the risk of Covid transmission if children attend, but the long-term costs if they don’t. 

“We saw big drop-offs in the amount kids were learning online,” Oster tells me, referring to data on how US pupils fared in the spring. But optimism rose that the kinks of online learning could be ironed out. It didn’t work out that way.  

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“What we learned over the fall is that, sure, there are some kids for whom this works fine, but by and large this has been very problematic,” Oster says. “We’re seeing big drop-offs in literacy, particularly for younger kids… It’s really hard to learn to read on Zoom.” 

Oster stresses that, in the case of schools, “there’s no safe option”. 

“We’re also seeing increasing mental health issues in kids across the whole age spectrum. We’re so saliently focused on Covid, which is important, Covid matters. But I think it’s a mistake not to recognise the losses on the other side too.” 

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That argument – that children learn better in schools and finding ways to reopen them safely should be a priority – has led to Oster being conflated with Covid-deniers and (bizarrely) the Trump administration. She expresses frustration that the debate “bifurcated along political lines rather than scientific ones”, and reiterates that the data she has collected shows transmission in schools is lower than in a host of other settings that are allowed to remain open across much of the US.  

Oster’s overall aim is not to fight Covid restrictions but to help parents make the best decisions for them using economics tools – whether that’s through her National Covid-19 School Response Dashboard, which tracks Covid transmission and mitigation practices from schools across the US, or her newsletter, ParentData (which has over 50,000 subscribers), which answers readers’ questions on everything from the safety of the vaccine for pregnant people to the risk of toxic metals in baby food.   

“I started this newsletter in January 2020 with the intention that it would be more like my books – I didn’t think I would do it that regularly,” she recalls. “Then it became a platform to talk about Covid.” 

And that’s how Oster, who is no epidemiologist, ended up reassuring readers twice a week over matters such as vaccines, the efficacy of masks, and how children can safely return to schools. As with all her work, the newsletter is full of the latest studies, broken down and contextualised to help people make their own judgements.  

Oster’s first two books offered data-driven advice about pregnancy and parenting infants. Her third – The Family Firm, which is published in August – doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. 

“It’s a book about parenting older kids, but it’s also a book about decision-making and recognising that when your kids are older a lot of the challenges are about how we make good decisions in unfamiliar settings,” she reflects – noting that, while the book was written before anyone had heard of Covid-19, those are exactly the kind of skills necessary for parenting in a pandemic. 

And what about Oster’s own experience, with two children under ten? Has Covid changed her perspective? 

“I’m a pretty academically intense person,” she laughs, recounting how she was convinced before the pandemic that her kids should be moving faster and that their school should focus more on learning and less on recess.  

“And then I got this opportunity to do it… I got this colour-coded thing, I got this schedule, I thought it’s going to be so great, they’re going to learn so much. 

“And the thing is, they totally did learn a tonne. I wasn’t wrong… But it was a terrible experience – terrible for them and terrible for me. I came out of the other end thinking ‘Oh, I see why it’s important to have recess.’” 

It’s refreshing to hear someone talk so frankly about changing their mind, especially when children are concerned. But economics has instilled in Oster a conviction that, while some courses of action may lead to preferred outcomes, there is no definitive “right” answer when it comes to parenting. For those panicking about the psychological impact of growing up in a pandemic, that’s a comforting message.  

“Kids are resilient, they can adapt to a lot of circumstances on average. I think some of the concerns people have, like ‘my two-year-old is never going to learn to interact with other people’, your two-year-old will probably figure it out. They’ll be fine.” 

So are parents messing up their kids’ chances for life with hours of extra screen time and lacklustre attempts at homeschooling? No, she assures me. “It’s going to be OK.”