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Emily Oster Fought to Reopen Schools, Becoming a Hero and a Villain

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Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, has a lot to say.

In July 2020, in the middle of the raging coronavirus pandemic, she wrote an opinion essay suggesting that schools and child care centers might be able to reopen safely, noting that working parents “can’t wait around forever.” In her popular parenting books, she tossed away longstanding medical guidelines, arguing that an occasional sushi roll and glass of wine are safe during pregnancy and that breastfeeding is overrated. More recently, she has cast doubt on whether students need to wear masks or remain physically distanced at school.

This steady stream of counterintuitive advice has made Dr. Oster a lodestar for a certain set of parents, generally college-educated, liberal and affluent. Many had first latched onto her data-driven child-rearing books. Her popularity grew during the pandemic, as she collected case counts of Covid-19 in schools and advanced her own strongly held views on the importance of returning to in-person learning.

Some parents said, half-seriously, “Emily Oster is my C.D.C.”

But others — teachers, epidemiologists and labor activists — criticized her, pointing out that she was not an infectious disease expert, nor did she have any deep personal or professional experience with public education. (Her two children attend private school, as did she.) On social media, the reaction could be brutal, with people calling her a “charlatan” and “monster” pushing “morally reprehensible” positions that “endangered many lives needlessly.”

And those were some of the more polite critiques.

None of the pushback has deterred Dr. Oster. She is launching an ambitious project to collect data on how schools operated during the crisis. She also has a new book, “The Family Firm,” that will be released in August, aimed at helping parents make decisions about schooling, nutrition, discipline and screen time.

“I am always out of my lane,” she said, jokingly, in an interview.

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.

Whitney Robinson, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, has been critical of some of Dr. Oster’s writing. But she credits the economist with helping a relatively privileged set of parents, including herself, make practical decisions during the pandemic.

“That really is her gift,” she said. “Synthesizing quantitative studies and spitting out rough guidelines or ways of thinking that can guide choices for upper-middle class, urban, suburban, sort of coastal people.”

Speaking over Skype, Dr. Oster was very much the picture of pandemic motherhood. She sat in the basement of her home in Providence, R.I., wearing a casual black T-shirt, an old treadmill nearby. The room was far from stage managed, but it did buffer her from her two young children.

Dr. Oster said she doesn’t relish the heated debate about her. “I am, like, a tremendously sensitive person,” she said. “I feel bad about all of it, all of the time.”

Still, she has never shied away from contentious subjects, and her new career trajectory is a continuation of her boundary-crossing work. She has always enjoyed interpreting academic research on health for a broad audience, and has long been frustrated by what she perceives as impractical parenting advice, which offers blanket rules — “Don’t sleep next to your baby” — instead of research findings that individuals can use to make personal choices.

The same was true during the pandemic, Dr. Oster noted. “I’d get questions like, is it better to have my in-laws watch my kid or send them to day care?” she said. “We’ve been told to do neither, but that isn’t a choice” for working parents.

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. Some teachers were eager to stay safe at home, teaching remotely, while others desperately wanted to return to their classrooms.

Amid all this, Dr. Oster stepped in to collect national data on Covid-19 cases in schools because, she said, the federal government had failed to do so. By last fall, the database she set up, seeded with information voluntarily submitted by school administrators, suggested that with simple precautions, schools could be operated without significant on-site transmission.

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…

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2021-06-22 18:39:03

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