January 14, 2023

John Thompson: COVID and Schools

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John Thompson takes a look at Emily Oster’s crusade to get school buildings open.

When I started following Emily Oster’s links and critiquing her analyses of COVID in schools, I first worried about her simplistic conclusions such as, “The evidence is pointing in one direction. Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19.” Since Diane Ravitch posted on epidemiologists Abigail Cartus’ and Justin Feldman’s research, I better understand where Oster was coming from, and how “Oster’s emphasis on individualism and personal choice ring sweetly in the ears of the rightwing philanthropists.”

Oster went “viral” when arguing that educators’ fears were “overblown,” and that kids are “simply very unlikely to be infected.”  But, as she made those claims, Oster ignored evidence that schools were significant spreaders, such as the CDC’s summary of Wisconsin infections from Sept 3 to Nov16, 2020That state’s schools were the 4th largest source of infections, following long term care and corrections facilities, and colleges; an estimated 14% of infections were linked to schools.

On the eves of Thanksgivings, when common sense said that holiday surges through Christmas and the New Year would be inevitable, Oster would double down on attacks on educators for not immediately reopening classrooms. As Rachel Cohen explained, Oster’s 2020 data “reflected an extremely small and unrepresentative sample of schools.” There was not a single urban traditional public school reporting data across 27 states in her dataset, including from Florida [and] Texas…”  Then, in November, Texas became the first state to have a million infections.

Worse, Cohen reported, “Rebekah Jones, a former Florida Department of Health data scientist who says she was fired in May over a refusal to manipulate her state’s COVID-19 stats, has publicly pushed back on Oster’s claims.” Jones “offered Oster full and free access to their data. ‘But she [Oster] basically decided to just pick what data she wanted, not what’s available.’” Jones added, “‘It’s offensive to researchers, when you see something so unabashedly unscientific, and when the opportunity to do something scientific was there.’”

Before long, I worried that Oster, an economist, was following in the path of economists who didn’t know what they didn’t about public schools and didn’t listen to educators regarding the flaws in their data-driven corporate school reforms. For instance, Oster seemed to disregard about 20% of the U.S. population [who] lived in homes with at least two adult generations or grandparents and grandchildren under 25 in 2016, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Research Center. And the dangers of spreading COVID from students to older family members was greater in low-income Black and Brown households.

Also, Oster ignored qualifications made by researchers, such as the Duke University study finding that masks can minimize the spread in schools.  In response to my questions on methodology, co-author Daniel Benjamin volunteered what it takes to safely reopen schools:

Is that there is 99% mask compliance for every person in the mainstream curriculum that steps on school property. It’s the mitigation strategies—distancing, masking, hand hygiene that are crucially important. If a school district does not do these things, they will likely make the pandemic worse by being open. This is why we don’t advise “you should open” or “you should go remote”…. It’s all about the public health measures.

At that time, I worried about Gov. Ron DeSantis and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt citing Oster while pressuring schools to open up and drop protections.  Neither did I understand why more journalists were not challenging her misuse of sources, and her repeated attacks on teachers unions, especially in publications funded by the Billionaires Boys Club. I sensed Oster’s methodology would cost lives.  But, I didn’t want to prejudge researchers at a time when lives were on the line, so I didn’t connect the dots.

But Cartus and Feldman connect the dots and write about Oster’s important role in making:

The “data-driven” case for peeling away successive layers of COVID mitigations: first ending remote instruction in favor of hybrid learning, then ending hybrid learning in favor of a full return to in-person instruction, then eliminating quarantine for those exposed to the virus. … Her vision for schooling during the pandemic ultimately involves abandoning universal public health measures altogether, turning masking and vaccination into individual, personal choices.

Cartus and Feldman address my question why her work “attracted little scrutiny.” It was more than journalists and experts being unaware of the differences between the highest poverty schools and the schools their children attend. Most importantly her work:

Has been funded since last summer by organizations that,without exception, have explicit commitments to opposing teacher’s unions, supporting charter schools, and expanding corporate freedom. In addition to grants from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Walton Family Foundation, and Arnold Ventures, Oster has received funding from far-right billionaire Peter Thiel. The Thiel grant awarded to Oster was administered by the Mercatus Center, the think tank founded and financed by the Koch family.

Cartus and Feldman went deeper than I did in explaining the damage that Oster prompted. For instance, in her “2020 article in The Atlantic, ‘Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders,’ Oster “assured readers in no uncertain terms that COVID transmission simply did not occur in schools at a rate that would necessitate closures.” But the analysis underlying the piece “drew on a sample of miniscule size—a mere two weeks of school data, reported in the second half of September 2020.” The sample was also biased by the fact that it was collected only from schools voluntarily participating in the Dashboard.

Cartus and Feldman then noted what so many journalists ignored, “The second half of September 2020 coincided with the very beginning of a national uptick in cases that would eventually become the punishing surge of winter 2020-21.”

When the press mostly failed to investigate the red flags that Oster’s work should have raised, “it became an article of faith that the laws of physics governing viral transmission don’t apply to schools, even as evidence of in-school viral transmission has mounted throughout the pandemic.”

Oster et.al’s “declarations of victory ignore[d] a growing body of research that has found schools contribute substantially to community coronavirus transmission, especially in the absence of adequate mitigation. The proclamation of “choice” that she justifies is really:

The ‘choice” to cast off obligations to others: the permission she offers affluent parents to disengage from the social contract. While the privileged seek a return to normalcy—or some sicker, poorer approximation of it—COVID will continue to infect and kill the working class and people of color at disproportionate rates.”

Now, history may be repeating itself. To quote National Public Radio, “People say they are done with COVID, but COVID is not done with us.” When we take stock of the interrelated harm done by anti-vaxers, anti-maskers, rightwingers, and their funders, as well as mistakes made by the CDC, we must draw upon Cartus’ and Feldman’s first draft of the history Emily Oster’s stardom.
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