Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, has a lot to say. In July 2020, amid the raging coronavirus pandemic, she wrote an opinion piece suggesting that schools and daycares could safely reopen, noting that working parents “can’t wait forever.”
In her popular parenting books, she flouted old medical guidelines and claimed that an occasional sushi or glass of wine was safe during pregnancy and that the benefits of breastfeeding were overstated. More recently, he questioned the need for students to wear masks or stay physically away from schools.
This constant flow of counterintuitive advice has made Oster a go-to for a certain group of parents, usually college graduates, liberal, and wealthy. Many had already read his data-laden parenting books. Her popularity increased during the pandemic as she collected the number of Covid-19 cases in schools and presented her strong opinions on the importance of returning to face-to-face learning.
Some parents would say, half-jokingly, “Emily Oster is my CDC [Centros de Controle e Prevenção de Doenças]But others – teachers, public health researchers and union activists – criticized her, saying she was neither an infectious disease specialist nor had extensive personal or professional experience in public education. (Her two children attended private schools, as did she.)
On social media, the reaction could be brutal, with people calling her a “charlatan” and “monster” for imposing “morally reprehensible” positions that “unnecessarily endangered many lives.”
And these are some of the more polite reviews.
No reaction stopped Oster. It is launching an ambitious project to collect data on the functioning of schools during the crisis. It also contains a new book, “The Family Firm”, which will be released in August in the United States and aims to help parents make decisions about schools, food, discipline and time spent on computers and smartphones. .
Whitney Robinson, a public health researcher at the University of North Carolina, criticized some of Oster’s writings. But she credits the economist with helping a relatively privileged set of fathers and mothers, including herself, to make practical decisions during the pandemic: “It really is her gift,” she said. declared. “Synthesize quantitative studies and launch guidelines or approximate ways of thinking that can guide the choices of the upper middle classes, urban, suburban or coastal.”
Speaking on Skype, Oster truly was the picture of pandemic motherhood. Sitting in the basement of her home in Providence, Rhode Island, wearing a black T-shirt, next to an old treadmill. The room was far from being tidy, but it protected it from her two young children. Oster said he did not appreciate the heated debate around him: “I am an extremely sensitive person,” he said. “I feel bad about it all all the time.”
But she has never avoided controversial subjects, and her new professional trajectory is part of the continuity of her work which crosses borders. Oster has always enjoyed interpreting academic health research for the general public and has long been frustrated with what he sees as impractical advice for moms and dads, which offers general rules for everyone – “don’t sleep.” not next to your baby ”- rather than research results that people can use to make personal choices.
The same was true during the pandemic, Oster commented. “I had questions like, ‘Is it better to let my in-laws look after my son or send him to daycare? “He said.” We have been told not to do any of this, but it is not an option “for working parents.
In fact, the lack of optimal options is one of the reasons the discussion of reopening schools is often toxic, sparking opposition among and among parents and teachers. More educated white parents were more likely to want in-person classes than working-class non-white parents, who had less confidence in schools and whose families were more likely to contract the virus or die from it. Some teachers were eager to stay safe at home, teaching distance learning courses, while others desperately wanted to return to their classrooms.
Through it all, Oster decided to collect national data on Covid-19 in schools because, she said, the federal government had not. Late last year, the database she created, fueled by information voluntarily provided by schools, suggested that with simple precautions, schools could operate without causing widespread dissemination on the spot.
His data work has been looked down upon by some union activists at the chair because it has been funded in part by philanthropic entities that support non-union schools funded by official funds. Also because it did not respect traditional research standards: data collection was not random, and initially biased towards private schools and affluent suburbs.
But eventually, the database grew to include schools serving over 12 million of the 56 million students through grade 12, including all public schools in New York City, Florida, Texas and from Massachusetts. And despite its limitations, Oster’s findings have been echoed by research from the CDC, the European Union, and many independent academics.
With a growing body of evidence in his possession, Oster admitted he had become “more radical” in his belief that schools should open, and he wrote more and more firmly on the subject.
It turns out that many educators have not accepted a coldly intellectual scheme for balancing risks and rewards, especially the one proposed around Brown University. Public school teachers lived in classrooms with locked windows and soap-free toilets. Supported by their unions, they wanted to work from home safely during the pandemic, as many parents have done.
They also noted that non-white working parents were the least likely to hit schools during the pandemic. When urban schools reopened, many teachers found themselves faced with nearly empty classrooms.
Oster had envisioned parents and teachers accessing school district data, reassured by tables and charts showing low case rates in schools. But he found that data alone would not determine education policy in the pandemic, nor shape the choices of many parents, at least not in the country’s decentralized but highly bureaucratic public school system, fraught with stress at work and stratified by all the disparities – race, class, region, politics – that define American life.
“Maybe I took a little naive approach,” she said.
Oster has repeatedly admitted that while children of all races appear not to be prone to contracting Covid in school buildings, the overall risks differ depending on the demographic. She is not immune to the progress of the pandemic either. A recent bulletin on new variants concluded that “we must remain vigilant” as we return to “some normalcy”.
Despite these clarifications, the importance of Oster angered some educators. Maya Chavez, a social science teacher at a high school in Providence, has worked in person for most of this school year. Rhode Island was one of the few liberal states that pressured schools to reopen last fall, in part because of the influence of Oster and other experts at Brown University. Oster spoke regularly with state officials.
“There is a serious disconnect between his idea of what a school is and reality,” said Chavez. At least 30 on-site students at his predominantly low-income school have been diagnosed with Covid, out of more than 8,000 student cases across the state. This does not mean that students caught the virus at school or spread it there, but it does illustrate the reality that people have had close contact with the virus in classrooms. Several of its students, many of whom live in intergenerational homes, have seen family members hospitalized or killed.
“There is a huge emotional trauma,” said Chavez.