Stanton: Yeah, the School Superintendents Association estimated that an average school district—something like 3,600 students, eight buildings and 300-some staff—would need $ 1.8 million just to meet basic reopening needs, like PPE or deep cleaning or—
Oster: Hand sanitizer! We’re doing this at universities, and I look at the bills and run some of this stuff at Brown. I look at the money we’re going to spend on disinfecting wipes. And it’s millions of dollars—on wipes! I mean, this is expensive for a highly funded Ivy League university. Forget about it for a rural school.
Stanton: In thinking about reopening schools, when you break it down into the component parts that are required for that to happen, it’s difficult to imagine figuring out all the moving parts in time. Kids riding school buses: How does that work? Cafeterias and school lunches?
Oster: And recess.
Stanton: Music classes, with kids singing aloud or breathing hot air through instruments?
Oster: Yeah, no singing.
Stanton: Or gym class. Or water fountains. I could go on and on. How do you think through all of that—the component parts of reopening schools?
Oster: One of the things I’ve been emphasizing is a need to decide some big-picture things—what we’re going to do—and then try to tackle these individually. I think what’s very overwhelming for people in these discussions is that we are sort of simultaneously discussing the question of, “Should we reopen, and in what broad sense?” And questions like, “What about the buses?” Really, those questions need to be sequenced. You need to say, we’re going to open two days a week, five days a week, not at all—whatever it is. Make some decision there, and then move on to these individual things. Until you have a basic plan, it is very hard for all the individual pieces to come together. If I’m thinking about buses, that is dependent on whether there are five days of buses or two days of buses or no buses. You need a basic framework and then you’ve just gotta tick through these as much as we can.
Stanton: When it comes to things like students wearing masks, we’ve all seen these viral videos of adults having hissy fits in Costco or Walmart—
Oster: Or Trader Joe’s.
Stanton: —after being denied entry or service because they refused to wear a mask. It’s easy to imagine an amplified trend of that this fall if and when a student or parent is denied entry into a public school unless they wear a mask. Given that some people are refusing to do even the most basic things you’d want them to do to combat coronavirus, what makes you confident that we will be able to do the more complicated and nuanced aspects of this that are needed for schools to open?
Oster: I wouldn’t say I’m confident. I’m not confident. [Laughs] The thing that schools have that is different from some of these other cases is the ability to enforce. Look at something like vaccines. I’ve done a little bit of work on vaccination compliance in California. California has a pretty significant anti-vax population. And the vaccination rates were going down, down, down. Schools basically said, ‘You should be vaccinated, but if you write down on a piece of paper that you don’t feel like it, we’ll let you out of it.’ That was the standard policy. And then after the [2014-2015] Disneyland measles outbreak, California passed a very stringent vaccination law, which said basically, ‘If you don’t have your vaccine, you either don’t go to school, or we’ll call up a doctor and schedule all of your vaccines.’ And vaccination compliance rates went up immediately. If you tell people you can’t enter a public school unless you get vaccinated, yes, a few people are going to be the vaccination equivalent of the guy in Trader Joe’s who refuses to wear a mask to get his Brussels sprouts.
What’s potentially more problematic is individual school districts. People have written to me: “What do you suggest I do? The school superintendent in my district thinks the coronavirus is a hoax.” Well, if that’s the case, then I don’t see how you’re going to get people to wear masks, because it’s not a problem with the people; it’s a problem with the leadership. That’s the piece I’m more worried about.
Stanton: So let’s say that schools are mostly safe to reopen, but not perfect. Who should be making the cost-benefit calculus as to whether a school or district reopens? Teachers? Parents? Districts? States? The Trump administration?
Oster: Not the last one. At the end of the day, this decision is going to need to be made by probably some combination of the state and the school administration. But one of the pieces that’s really missing from a lot of the discussion at this point is input from teachers. There’s a lot of teachers groups—unions, yes, but not just unions—who feel like basically these choices are being made for them. And they’re very nervous. I do see the perspective of the administrators, which is, ‘We’re trying to think about everybody, and we don’t have time to fight.’ But there is a point to listening and hearing people’s concerns, and also trying to make teachers and staff understand the ways in which, hopefully, we will be protecting them. I’ve been pushing for routine [coronavirus] testing for teachers. Spread among teachers in a school is probably more important than spread from kids to teachers, based on what we know.
Stanton: Within the last couple of days, there have been reports that the White House is planning to release its own guidelines for school reopenings—
Oster: God only knows what that will involve.
Stanton: —and saying the CDC’s guidelines are too restrictive. The CDC director said it was “not the intent of the CDC to be used as a rationale to keep schools closed.” What are the risks of school reopenings getting politicized?
Oster: As these things get politicized, the ability to have a balanced discussion about it deteriorates. I’ve found that even in the last couple of days. I am basically more pro-school reopening than some people, but I’m trying very hard to sort of take a balanced view. Yes, it’s important for kids and the economy, but we need to be very careful to do it safely.
But I’m finding myself being like, “Oh my God. The person agreeing with me is Donald Trump. That’s not a comfortable place.” And they’ve taken, like, a totally different, less nuanced approach—like we have to just reopen at all costs.