An economist who collected coronavirus data from 841 childcare centers explains how parents should decide whether to send kids back to school

reopening schools
reopening schools


  • As cities start opening up, parents face the tough decision of whether to send children who’ve been stuck at home for months to daycare, or school. 

  • To help parents with that decision, Emily Oster, an economist, collected coronavirus data from childcare centers that have stayed open during the pandemic. 

  • The data pointed to low transmission rates among both children and staff.

  • Still, Oster acknowledged that the childcare decision is a personal one and that there are “no easy answers.”

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Since the pandemic hit, Emily Oster — an economist who’s authored two books on parenting and pregnancy— has been using available data to respond to families’ pressing concerns about the coronavirus. She’s touched on topics like how to safely visit grandparents and the risks the virus poses in pregnant women.

Lately, Oster’s received an outpouring of questions from parents about whether to send children back to daycare or school. When Oster investigated, she found there’s no official source of data on coronavirus cases at childcare centers that have remained open during the pandemic. 

So she started collecting data herself from childcare centers across the US that never closed their doors. The data is imperfect. It’s self-reported, doesn’t account for asymptomatic cases, and there were a limited number of tests available at the pandemic’s recent peak. But the Brown University professor said that the snapshot is still reassuring. 

Preliminary data from childcare centers points to low transmission rates 

school reopening
school reopening


In a discussion on Instagram with pediatrician Kelly Fradin, Oster shared her initial findings and advice. The data pointed to low rates of transmission among both children and staff members, and no clusters of cases. But even still, Oster, a mother of two, said that she’s “reluctant” to glean too much actionable information from her preliminary findings. 

Parents still have to balance the risks associated with keeping children home — which include developing mental health issues, missing out on socialization, and falling behind academically — with the risks of the disease. 

“It’s going to be tough,” Oster said. “There’s not going to be any easy answers here.”

Of more than 20,000 students evaluated, there were 44 reported cases of COVID-19

Altogether, Oster collected data from 841 US childcare centers. Of more than 20,000 students served, there were 44 reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. That was a case rate of 0.22%. Among more than 7,000 staff members, there were 86 confirmed cases. That presented a case rate of 1.2%. 

Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says that we still have an incomplete picture when it comes to understanding the risks associated with reopening schools. Since children have been largely protected from the worst of  the disease and have been tested less, there are still question marks around how they spread it. 

But he said he found Oster’s data “reassuring” and “entirely consistent” with the data emerging from countries that have already sent children back to the classroom. 

“The bottom line is it doesn’t look that risky,” Schaffner told Insider.

In the US, children represent 2% of coronavirus cases

In the US, children younger than 18 represent 2% of coronavirus cases, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. Children who get the coronavirus are less likely than adults to develop complications or die from the disease. 

According to Schaffner, it appears as though children aren’t spreading the coronavirus the way they spread an illness like influenza. With the flu, Schaffner said, children “may not get very sick — but they shed a lot of virus and they become the big distribution mechanism in our society.”

GettyImages 1219075361
GettyImages 1219075361


To help parents decide whether or not to send their kids back to school, Oster advised parents to keep in mind age differences. High school students, for example, can tolerate distance learning better than preschool children. Teenagers can still keep up with friends virtually, even though it’s not ideal. 

A preschool curriculum, which is rooted in socialization, is much more difficult to replicate online. Younger children also require more supervision from adults at home, which means keeping them in the house will more likely interfere with a parent’s ability to work. The children are also more at risk of getting hurt if a parent or caregiver is distracted. 

Parents should identify specific scenarios and concerns when making childcare decisions

To make the decision less agonizing, Oster urged parents to avoid posing the daunting question of “Should I send my child back to school?” 

 Instead, she advised parents to focus on more specific choices.

For example, one family might be considering whether to enroll their children in camp now or move in a set of grandparents to help out with childcare. Once children in a household enroll in a school setting, the family may have to consider separating from elderly relatives since the increased exposure could put them at a higher risk of developing severe disease. 

Parents with immunocompromised family members living in the home will have to weigh the health risks with the risks of keeping children out of school. Parents who have to return to a work setting to support the family will have to consider the risks involved with their childcare options. 

Oster also pointed to the mental health piece of the equation that’s “not to be dismissed.” Since March, mothers have taken on the brunt of homeschooling and housework while balancing their own jobs. They could also be facing depression and burnout, which additional childcare could potentially help ease. 

Oster recommends parents make a choice and stick with it, because there are no perfect solutions and inevitable challenges will come up. 

“Once you think about those things,” Oster said, “you just have to decide, and move forward.”

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