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Is There A Way To Safely Reopen Schools In The Fall?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Shortly after 9 this morning, President Trump threatened to cut federal funding for schools that don't open in the fall. At stake here are a slew of competing and contradictory needs - the need for children to learn, the need for their parents to have their kids engaged during working hours, the need for schools to implement and somehow pay for new safety measures, and the need for everyone - teachers, students and their parents - to be safe. Now, is there any way to resolve all that to everyone's satisfaction? A question we're going to put now to Brown University economist, Emily Oster.

Hey there.

EMILY OSTER: Hi.

KELLY: On top of all the stakeholders, all the competing needs I just listed, we don't have all the data that we would ideally need to make these really complicated decisions. Let me start with students because I know you have spent some time crunching the data around infection rates in day cares that have stayed open during this pandemic in the hope that that might tell us something about what might happen in the fall if everybody goes back. What have you learned?

OSTER: So I think in general - and we learned this from some of the data that I've collected but also from a lot of other data - kids are at fairly low risk for COVID. So even in day cares that are open, the infection rates in staff are much higher than the infection rates in kids. And the infection rates in kids are really low. They're not zero, so kids can get the virus. But they don't get it at very high rates, and they tend to have fairly mild cases. So I think that piece of the data is quite reassuring.

KELLY: Although, as you noted in a recent article for The Atlantic, schools do not contain only children. This is not "Lord Of The Flies." So what about for teachers? What do we know about the considerations there?

OSTER: You know, teachers are a much higher-risk group. And it's not just interacting with the kids, it's interacting with each other. So one of the things I've said is even if we think kids tend to not get sick and they don't transmit very much, the process of opening a school involves a lot of adults interacting with each other. And there definitely are teachers - many teachers, given the age of our teaching workforce - who are at higher risk of COVID. So when I think about these considerations, a huge piece of it is how are we going to protect teachers, and how are we going to be sensitive to teachers who aren't comfortable coming back? And how are we going to manage schools when the workforce is limited in this way?

KELLY: You're an economist, so let me put the economics question to you. What are the stakes if schools do not reopen?

OSTER: This is, in some ways, the key to getting the economy back online, to getting people to work and getting people to, you know, have money for rent and food and all the other things that they need. And, you know, parents can't work if kids are not at school. And if kids are at school a day a week, it's going to be very challenging for parents to manage that while also having jobs.

KELLY: What are the economic questions that are on your mind as you think about schools? How many of them have the money to make this work, to reopen in a way that both serves students and keeps the teachers and everybody else safe?

OSTER: Among the most significant problems, our school systems are already tremendously underfunded. And now we're asking them to do a totally different thing, for which they need much more staff. Where's the money going to come from? If you said, you know, we can only have half the kids in a classroom at a time, well, that would probably mean we need twice as many teachers. Plus we need a lot of PPE. Plus we need a lot of testing and all kinds of other stuff. So to say that we're just going to let schools fend for themselves and then tell them, you know, you better open or else it, it seems almost impossible without someone stepping up with more money. This is an emergency. I think we are not treating this with the level of emergency-ness (ph) that it actually is for societal functioning.

KELLY: Because right now it seems like we're requiring almost all of the stakeholders here just to take an enormous leap of faith, which circles us back to where we started and whether all of these competing needs can be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. It sounds like the answer, sadly, is no.

OSTER: You know, unfortunately there is no kind of first best here. You know, in practice, there's no way to do this where no one will get the coronavirus because there's a viral pandemic. So I think we are going to have to make some very hard choices here. And I think, you know, that there's no really great way to make that choice because I don't know how you trade off, you know, the risk of serious illness or death among staff against the kin of, learning outcomes of a very large number of kids. And that's the choice you have to make, but that seems like an impossible choice.

KELLY: Emily Oster is an economics professor at Brown University.

Thanks so much for talking with us.

OSTER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.