Home > Essays > Covid Illustrates Limits of Data Driven Decisions in Reopening AND Operating Public Schools

Covid Illustrates Limits of Data Driven Decisions in Reopening AND Operating Public Schools

June 23, 2021

Emily Oster, an economist at Brown, has become a go-to source of information for parents who are seeking clear, data driven decisions on how and when to reopen schools. But, as a NYTimes article underscores, data sets are not determinative when it comes to making political decisions. After introducing how Ms. Oster, an economist, became a trusted authority in two subjects she has no experience or expertise in— namely epidemiology and school administration— NYTimes writer Dana Goldstein writes: 

Dr. Oster emerged as a central figure in the vociferous debate about school reopenings. While not an educational or medical expert, she used her skills as an economist to make a case for in-person learning, using data and logic. And at a time when traditional guidance was confusing and contradictory — masks on or off? — many parents were drawn to her clear and consistent opinions. But data sets, as Dr. Oster learned, can’t completely capture the complicated calculations families and educators make about education during a pandemic.

Ms. Goldstein explains one of the crucial limits of data sets when it comes to decision making: they are no help at all when someone faces a Hobson’s Choice and the choices individuals face are disparate based on their socioeconomic status and trust levels:

Indeed, the lack of great choices is one reason the school reopening debate has often been toxic, pitting parents and teachers against each other and one another. White and college-educated parents were more likely to want in-person schooling than working-class parents of color whose families were more likely to contract the virus or die from it, and who had more distrust of schools.

And data that is collected by “an amateur” to make contentious decisions faces another obstacle: it is inevitably suspect, even IF it is later confirmed by “experts”, as this paragraph points out: 

Her data work was discounted by some teachers’ union activists because it was funded, in part, by philanthropies that support nonunion charter schools. And it didn’t adhere to traditional research norms; the data collection wasn’t randomized, and initially it skewed toward private and suburban schools. But eventually, the database grew to include schools serving more than 12 million of the nation’s 56 million K-12 students, including all of the public schools in New York, Florida, Texas and Massachusetts. And despite its limitations, Dr. Oster’s conclusions were eventually echoed by research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Union and many independent scholars.

The suspicion about the data-driven recommendations advanced by Ms. Oster were also suspect by school teachers for another reason: work environments within and between school districts are wildly disparate:

It turned out that many educators would not accept a coolly intellectual framework for balancing risk and reward, especially not one advanced from the environs of Brown University. Public schoolteachers had experienced sealed-shut classroom windows and bathrooms without soap. Backed by their unions, they wanted to work safely at home during the pandemic, just as many of their students’ parents were.

And in the end, as noted repeatedly in earlier blog posts, it wasn’t just the unions who were reluctant to return to schools: many parents had misgivings as well:

Dr. Oster had envisioned parents and teachers logging onto school district dashboards, reassured by charts and graphs demonstrating low case rates in schools. But she discovered that data alone would not determine pandemic education policy, nor shape many parents’ choices, at least not in the country’s decentralized, yet highly bureaucratic public school system, rife with labor tensions and stratified by every disparity — race, class, region, politics — that defines American life.

Ms. Goldstein also flags another important point: the decision on whether to return to school is idiosyncratic on a family-by-family basis. Citing an example offered by a RI social studies teacher in Providence, she writes:

At least 30 students learning in-person at her predominantly low-income school tested positive for Covid-19, among more than 8,000 such student cases statewide. That does not mean students caught the virus in school or spread it there, but it does illustrate the reality that people came into close contact with the virus within classrooms. Several of her students, many of whom live in intergenerational homes, had family members who were hospitalized or died.

If the Grandparent, Aunt or Uncle of a student who lived under their roof died the numbers on a dashboard don’t matter. And, as Ms. Oster acknowledged after writing an article in the Atlantic that asserted that “unvaccinated children could be considered as protected against the virus this summer as vaccinated grandparents” that rule cannot be applied evenhandedly since “the situation is different for higher risk children” and vaccines have not necessarily been equitably or evenhandedly distributed. After all was said and done, though, Emily Oster stands by her findings: 

But on the whole, she sticks by her writing. There is also some uncertainty about whether opening schools increased virus rates in their communities as parents returned to work. But even if it did in some cases, Dr. Oster said she questions whether that justifies a policy that led to academic, social and emotional hardship for so many families.

Perhaps in-school contact tracing and testing could have been better. But “it wasn’t a mistake to open schools,” she said definitively, and more of them should have opened faster. She is sure of it. After all, she has looked at the data.

After reading this article, I couldn’t help but wonder what a data-driven economist like Ms. Oster would say about the billions we’ve spent “hardening” schools to protect children from the microscopic chance that they would experience a school shooting. What would she say about the decisions public schools made to offer school shooter drills, to install surveillance cameras, to hire armed guards, to replace door locks, and implement security procedures in order to avoid an event that has a statistical chance that is far lower than almost any other mortality risk a kid faces, including traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports

Ms. Oster should know now that data sets are not determinative when it comes to parental or political decisions. 

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