On learning and implementing lessons from the pandemic

Emily Oster

Professor of Economics, Brown University


What do you want anxious parents to know?

“The biggest thing is that this is a low-risk virus for kids. That’s worth parents keeping in mind as we move into the next phase, where a lot of adults have been lucky enough to be vaccinated, and we continue to have good vaccine access in the US. Kids are still not vaccinated, but we can start to give them some freedoms even before the vaccine is approved for them.”

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I really hope we can make sure that the fear that has pervaded adults—that we can push past that to say, ‘It’s okay to have the kids in school.’ That we will not let our anxiety affect our children’s ability to go back to having their regular lives.”

What advice do you have for parents facing tough decisions about their kids this year?

“The first step is to frame the question. The question is not: ‘Should I send my kid to daycare or not?’ ‘Or not’ is not a real option. You really want to have a choice between one or two concrete alternatives. ‘Should I send my kid to daycare, or hire a nanny?’ ‘Should I send my kid to daycare or take a leave from my job and stay home?’ You need to be evaluating two concrete things. Then you can think about how to mitigate risks.”

Where do you land on vaccinating younger kids?

“I worry a bit that we’re going to get to a place where if you express any hesitancy around vaccinating your four-year-old, people are going to say, ‘You’re a crazy person. Why are you buying into this crazy anti-vax sentiment?’ That isn’t reasonable. It is a very, very different cost benefit analysis for vaccination of a four-year-old than it is for an 85-year-old. That doesn’t mean the vaccine isn’t a good idea for both, but the way we think about the relative costs and benefits are different. I think we’re going to have to accept that vaccination rates in little kids are going to be lower than vaccination rates in adults, and that’s probably okay from the standpoint of the virus.”

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How should schools approach coming back in the fall?

“I would focus the school conversation on questions of mitigation of risk. How much are particular mitigation strategies going to matter? Is it masking or ventilation? Is it COVID-19 testing or not COVID-19 testing? Focus your energies on thinking about those trade-offs. Those are concrete questions we can try to evaluate with data, and will be a much more productive use of our time than asking, “Should we open or not?” The answer is: we should open, we should open full-time, five days a week, for everybody. If we start with that, then we can get into these detailed questions about exactly what mitigations we want to undertake.”

What are your hopes as we head into recovery?

“I hope for resilience. I really hope we as adults can push past the fear that has pervaded this year to say, ‘It’s okay to have the kids in school.’ That we will not let our own anxiety affect our children’s ability to go back to having their regular lives.”