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Economist Emily Oster told Insider she was “very disappointed” by New York City’s decision to close schools, especially because leaders acknowledged schools don’t seem to drive coronavirus transmission. 

“It’s like something you would say about some institution that’s completely irrelevant to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people,” she said. 

Oster’s data on 8,774,083 students, nearly 4 million who are taking classes in-person, has shown COVID-19 rates in schools tend to reflect the communities they’re in. 

Staffing capability and rates within individual schools should factor into whether any one school closes, not an arbitrary, city-wide rate, she said. 

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When Emily Oster heard New York City was closing its schools because coronavirus rates had reached the 3% threshold Mayor Bill De Blasio had set early in the pandemic, she was “very disappointed.”  

Not because her family will be directly affected, residing in Providence, Rhode Island, where schools remain open. Nor because the 3% threshold is arbitrary and appeared to be the only criterion (though she has criticisms of that too). 

It wasn’t even the fact that the economist’s own data on nearly 9 million students shows that schools do not drive the spread of the illness, but rather reflect what’s going on in their communities. 

What most dismayed Oster, a Brown professor and author, was that officials acknowledged that the coronavirus wasn’t spreading in schools, and yet shut the schools anyway.

“Our schools have opened and have been remarkably safe,” the schools chancellor Richard A. Carranza said Wednesday. “The problem is not coming from the schools,” New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, who did not intervene with the decision, said. 

To Oster, that’s “almost like you’re saying … ‘but who cares?’ It’s like something you would say about some institution that’s completely irrelevant to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.” 

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“No one has said the reason to close schools is to protect the health of children in New York,” Oster said, because it doesn’t. “No one has made that case.” 

Oster’s data has shown rates among students are slightly lower than the community  

Since September, Oster has been collecting data from US schools through the COVID-19 School Response Dashboard, a partnership between Qualtrics, the National Associations of School Superintendents and Principals, and others. 

The team goes to schools every other week to ask about COVID-19 cases in students and staff. The most recent data includes 8,774,083 students, nearly 4 million who are taking classes in-person. 

As was the case in mid-October, when Oster explained her team’s research in a column for Insider, transmission rates in schools generally mirror rates in the community. On the whole, students tend to have lower rates than the community at large, with 17 cases per 100,000 daily compared to 21 per 100,000 in a matched community. Staff rates are slightly higher, with 27 per 100,000 daily. 

“They’re really moving together,” Oster said. “Where we’re seeing higher community rates, we’re seeing more cases in schools, which is what we should expect.”  

Her data, and that of other teams, has also consistently shown that rates tend to be higher in high school than elementary and middle schools, in part because younger kids seem to be less susceptible to the illness. A recent CDC report found 5- to 11-year-olds experience about half the rates of 12- to 17-year-olds. 

Don’t close all schools. Use multiple metrics to determine which ones should shut down.

Other experts have criticized De Blasio’s strict 3% threshold for shutting down schools — especially since bars and restaurants, which, unlike schools, are known super-spreader venues — remain open. 

Oster had the same critique. “Making decisions of this nature based on arbitrary thresholds is not typically the way we would like to make important policy decisions,” she said. 

Rather, a decision might be made by considering, along with other factors, the trend of the numbers — rates that quickly rise from 1.5 to 2 to 3 and so on would better warrant consideration of closure than rates that hover around 3. 

Staffing constraints are another important consideration, Oster said. Do schools that want to remain open even have enough staff members, given that a portion are staying home if they have symptoms, the virus itself, or known exposure. 

But the main factor in decisions about whether schools should be open or closed is “whether there is transmission in school,” Oster said. If there’s transmission in a single school, for instance, maybe administrators would consider shutting it, but not the whole system, down, and try to figure out what went wrong.

“I think any kind of threshold that I would have, or any kind of data that I would put into the equation, I think should be specific to the experience in the school,” Oster said. 

‘It’s OK to feel angry and mad and anxious and sad about this’

It is possible that the closing schools could actually drive community transmission rates. 

“People are often imagining that the thing that people are doing if they are not at school is hunkering down,” Oster said. But data in Rhode Island, at least, shows that rates of COVID-19 are similar in kids whether they attend in-person or online schooling, the governor there has cited to support her decision to keep schools open. 

Oster, who has two kids and has written two parenting books, “Expecting Better” and “Cribsheet,” is grateful for that. “It’s like a gift,” she said. “Every day my kids are really happy” to go. 

She urges other parents, whether their kids are in school or not, to simply accept their negative feelings, even if they know other families have it “worse” than them. 

“It’s OK to feel angry and mad and anxious and sad about this,” she said. “This is hard for everybody and it’s OK for you to feel that it is hard for you and go into the bathroom and cry. That’s OK. 

One other thing is OK too, she added: “It’s OK if your kids have lots of screen time.” 

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