Learning As We Go

September 1, 2020

Photo by Dan Gaken licensed under CC BY 2.0  

How are educators and families navigating what we know, and don’t know, about the risks of restarting school during a pandemic?  

Listen to the full episode below or scroll down for the transcript and more information. Click here for more of our coronavirus coverage.

Dan Gorenstein: Hey everybody, it’s Dan Gorenstein. It’s nice to have Tradeoffs back in your feed after a few weeks. 

We spent August doing a bunch of research and reporting on some stories for the fall: President Trump’s health policy record, Joe Biden’s health care ambitions, the pandemic, surprise medical bills, so many stories in store for you. 

So let’s get going. We start with the “reopening” of schools. 

It’s September 1st, and by the middle of the month, nearly all teachers, students and parents will be back in the school season swing. 

Of course – that will look pretty different from one place to the next. Some kids will be back in school, at their desks, others meeting in special pods with a handful of classmates, or they’ll be home tethered to their Chromebooks. 

That’s where my two sons will be, one starting 7th grade the other starting his freshman year of high school from their bedrooms.

Today, from the Annenberg Studio at the University of Pennsylvania, a conversation with Brown University economist Emily Oster about the tough choices schools and families are facing this fall. 

I’m Dan Gorenstein and this is Tradeoffs.    

DG: So, Emily, we’ve seen lots of places, including big districts like Philadelphia, Houston and Chicago opt to open online this fall while other places, and even whole states, are opening in person. In the broadest sense, what’s driving schools to go the online route? 

Emily Oster: So I think there’s basically two things. So one is this decision feels safe from a public health standpoint. When we are so focused on COVID transmission, it feels like if we open and people are around, there’ll be some transmission and the safest thing is to not open at all, and so there’ll be less COVID. 

I think the other piece of it is that what a lot of school districts are struggling with is the realization that if they do open in person, there’s a chance that they will have to at some point go back, to be remote, if the situation gets worse. And I think thinking about that transition and how one could manage that, that’s really complicated, and I think that for many places this is the thing which we may have to do anyway, so we want to start there. So I think all of those things are going on.

DG: Emily has built her career on helping people, often parents, make better choices with better data. When it comes to schools opening online, Emily worries too many districts are focused on COVID concerns and paying less attention to the downsides to online learning. 

Emily, keeping schools closed has lots of repercussions. Let’s walk through a couple of them. First, many, if not most, school districts were remote in the spring. What’s the data suggest that actually happened to those students? Did learning end up suffering? I know in the case of my soon to be 15-year-old and soon to be 13-year-old, it did.

EO: Yeah. I mean, I think certainly if you talk to parents, they will tell you that their kids did not learn as much in the spring as they think that they would have if they had been if they had been in school. And you know we do have a little bit of data on this. I think the best evidence comes from this company called Zearn. 

DG: Zearn is an online program that walks kids through math lessons, and kids across the country used it before we all went online. 

Starting in the spring, lesson completion dropped 40%. In districts with the lowest income levels, lessons dropped 70%. 

EO: So we’re seeing even in something where it was already a computerized experience, you would think it would be relatively straightforward to port into doing it at home. But it really tanked. 

DG: How comfortable and confident are you to sit down and say, yeah, this probably is a leading indicator to suggest learning really did suffer across the country?

EO: That is the sharpest piece of data. What’s useful about it is it aligns with a lot of what people are saying anecdotally. If you talk to teachers in school districts or if you look at numbers like what share of kids logged on to online learning, it’s not 100% and it’s not close to the share of kids who were showing up in person. I think we have a bunch of these pieces of data [and] almost everything we see suggests that learning suffered during the spring period.

DG: So, if we accept the Zearn findings as indicative of what’s actually happening, the downside to online learning comes into sharper focus. Not only is coursework getting stunted but the class and race inequities in schools are widening.

The question, are those downsides worth the public health benefits? Emily says, based on research she’s done this summer looking at camps and child care programs, this may be a false choice.  

EO: We actually really kind of need to know what happens when we bring people together. And so I at some point early on in the pandemic said, you know, I think you can probably learn something from summer camps because the age range is sort of similar. There are other things that are not similar, but there is something potentially we can learn. So I’ve been collecting some data, which is I just want to be clear, not random. And in the camps and child care settings that I have data on, we actually have very, very low infection rates, and we should talk about kind of counterexamples, but I think there are certainly examples of places that have kind of been open with kids that have been safe.

DG: So the summer camp data suggests that maybe outbreaks aren’t as threatening as some people think, but we’ve seen schools open over the summer and there are cases of people getting infected and then the schools shutting down. Doesn’t that sort of buttress this argument that maybe we’re safer just going online and not even sort of opening Pandora’s box?

EO: Yeah, so, I mean, I think one thing that’s very frustrating about this is that is that we don’t have systematic data on the schools. So it is definitely true that as places have opened, there have been cases, multiple cases in schools, places where it looks like there is some spread pretty clearly going on in the school. 

One of the things we’ve learned, for example, from Georgia is if you bring back a high school on basically no precautions–you don’t require people to mask, there’s no distancing, you have football–the positivity rate is 15% in area. It seems like that’s a way to get some COVID spread. That’s not actually the same as opening a social distance, fully masked kindergarten or first grade in New York City or in New Hampshire or in someplace else with a low prevalence rate. And it’s not the same because of the differences in prevalence rate is not the same because of the differences in precautions, is not the same because of the differences in age groups. 

DG: Emily, based on the conversations you’re having with school officials, are you getting the sense that people are making decisions based on the outbreak level in their communities? Or do you find that most school districts are just responding with this sort of worst case scenario fear and saying, you know what, let’s just go to online learning?

EO: The people that I have talked to in school districts are incredibly thoughtful about this, and they are trying to do everything they can to simultaneously serve their students and also do it safely. And they are really, really confused about what to do. And the guidance that they get is really variable.  

So, you know, people in Iowa have been told basically you need to be fully in person unless the positivity rate is above 25%. And then there are people who are being told you absolutely cannot be in person and all of the positivity rate is above 2%. 

So I think there’s just a tremendous amount of frustration and kind of feeling of just being a little like a little abandoned, honestly, in making these decisions.

DG: Of course, opening up physically or remotely is all new. There’s little specific guidance at the federal level, meaning there’s no clear path forward leaving schools, teachers, parents, students groping in the dark. 

But Emily hopes to change that. 

In August, Emily announced she was partnering with schools, superintendents and data wonks to begin gathering evidence on schools that reopen to help Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and everyone else who is opening remotely. 

EO: There are a lot of places that are opening online that are hoping to open in-person, later. They’re waiting to see what happens with the places that are open in-person so they can try to figure out is it safe to open in-person and when is it going to be safe to open in-person? 

They can’t figure that out because they don’t know what’s happening with the places that are open. And that’s kind of the meta point is we’ve sort of fallen down on learning the kind of information that we would need to make good choices here.

DG:  Both my folks were teachers and my mom, who’s still with us, would not be psyched if I didn’t ask a question about the safety of teachers. What do we know about the risk that teachers and other adults in the building are taking with in person learning?

EO: We don’t have a lot of data. But what I will say is, is probably the best that I’ve seen is from Sweden. If there’s a bit from Denmark too. So in Sweden, they kept schools open the whole time. And if you can look at what happened, are teachers a high-risk group? So there are some groups where they make up a pretty large share of hospitalizations relative to their size in the labor market. So, for example, bus driver and food service worker in Sweden were very high risk professions, but teacher was not. 

That data kind of suggests that teaching is not an especially high-risk profession but I think that we have a huge uphill battle in trying to work with teachers and with unions to try to to both convince them, but also make them, make people feel safe. I don’t think we want people coming into schools feeling unsafe and anxious. We need to figure out how are we going to make clear the ways that they are going to be protected.

DG: How do you think we should be dealing with this situation, Emily, where there’s just a lack of good evidence, there’s a lack of guidance, there’s a lot on the line and there’s a ton of emotion? What have you learned as an academic, as a researcher and writer, as a thinker, about how to juggle things that are going on right now?

EO: One of the things people are really struggling with is once they make a decision, they rarely feel good about it because no decisions are good. And that, I think, has been a very valuable thing to name for people. And I think that knowing that may actually make it easier for people to move forward because they are not continually expecting that somehow the next moment they’ll feel great about this. 

DG: Understanding the tradeoffs…

EO: Exactly, that there are tradeoffs. Somebody should have a podcast about that.

DG: I think so. That seems like a really great name for a show. 

EO: Really good name, amazing.

DG: So to wrap this up. Emily, I’m curious what you’re expecting to see over the first 10, 12 weeks of the fall when it comes to school.

EO: What I suspect will happen is that some places will open and some places will not. The places that open will stay open pretty much regardless. I think the places that do not open will not open for the whole semester. So I think it will be very difficult for places to transition from remote into in person. 

It sort of feels like in some ways the worst of both worlds that we have a bunch of places open that kind of shouldn’t be from a public health standpoint and a bunch of places that don’t open but could from a public health standpoint. So we’re losing the learning, but not really protecting public health.

DG: Emily hopes working with superintendents and principals data will finally start to make its way to school leaders in the hopes of arming districts with reliable information to make incredibly difficult decisions about whether to physically open up schools again. 

The project may lack the heft that comes with federal guidance but it beats more than 13,000 school districts making decisions with very little data today. 

I’m Dan Gorenstein, and this is Tradeoffs. 

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Episode Resources

Select News, Analyses and Resources:

How schools can reopen safely during the pandemic (Smriti Mallapaty; Nature; 8/18/2020)

Schools Briefing: The State of Play for K-12 (Amelia Nierenberg and Adam Pasick; New York Times; 8/17/2020) 

Plans of US Parents Regarding School Attendance for Their Children in the Fall, A National Survey (Emily Kroshus, Matt Hawrilenko, Pooja Tandon, et al; JAMA Pediatrics; 8/14/2020)

Reopening Schools: Lessons from Abroad (Tyler Barton and Anand Parekh; Commonwealth Fund; 08/11/2020)

Reopening K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; 7/15/2020)

What Will Schools Do When a Teacher Gets Covid-19? (Emily Oster; New York Times; 7/28/2020)

Episode Credits


Emily Oster, PhD, Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence and Professor of Economics, Brown University

The Tradeoffs theme song was composed by Ty Citerman, with additional music from Unheard Music Concepts, Blue Dot Sessions and Miscellaneous.

This episode was reported and produced by Sabrina Emms. It was mixed by Sabrina Emms and Andrew Parrella.

Additional thanks to:

The Tradeoffs Advisory Board…

…and our stellar staff!