Future Tense

We’re Thinking About School Closings and Reopenings Wrong

Before we can decide whether schools can be open, we need to be clear about how we prioritize them.

Two children wearing masks sit at a table with pencil and paper.
ake1150sb/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A version of this article first appeared in Emily Oster’s newsletter, ParentData.

You might have thought it would be settled by now, but the school reopening debate is far from over. We are in largely the same place we were in September, except with broader—although by no means universal—agreement that schools themselves are not locations with a lot of COVID-19 spread. But this doesn’t mean there is no possibility of spread, and there is little agreement on what constitutes an acceptable level of risk.

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This has become even more complicated as community rates have gone up. Many people—even some who have advocated for school openings—have suggested we may need to take a pause between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It may not be the fault of schools, but community rates may make school impossible. Yet whether or not we close schools between Thanksgiving and Christmas, these issues will not be gone in January. Widespread vaccines are, at best, a late spring option. But this holiday break and new semester may afford us a (last) opportunity to change our thinking.

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The thinking that matters most when it comes to school decision-making is that of policymakers. In most states and cities, policymakers also have some control over parks, schools, dining and bars, gyms, and store capacity. (They can make statements about private gathering sizes, too, although it’s hard to control what people do.)

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Many policymakers have set a community rate “threshold” for closing schools, but there is no consensus as to what that threshold should be. Is it 3 percent, as Mayor Bill de Blasio has said in New York City? Is it 20 percent, as some Iowa districts were told back in August? Should this depend on testing positivity or case rates or a combination of the two? Is there any community threshold at which schools should be closed?

And as schools are given hard lines for shutdowns, businesses are often treated differently. Frustration has bubbled up, especially in (relatively) low-prevalence areas when restaurants and gyms are open but not schools. “Schools before bars” (or before indoor dining, or before gyms) has become a rallying cry among those who want schools open.

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Many months ago, I talked about the idea of a risk-benefit matrix for deciding which activities you should engage in. (You can see the post here.) The idea in that post was to highlight that every activity has a COVID-19 risk but also an associated benefit. Some of those benefits are social or emotional; others are financial. By placing them on a matrix with one axis for risk and one for benefit, we can think about which activities make sense to do.

This applies to individual choices but also to policy choices. And I want to suggest, now, that we might even further simplify this matrix into … a line.

Each of these activities entail some risk and some benefits. The key decision for the policymaker is to combine these risks and benefits, and generate some kind of ranking, and then proceed accordingly, closing the higher-risk/lower-benefit activities before those that are lower risk/higher benefit. Here is an example with a few policy decisions (note I’ve left off schools for now):

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A line reading, left to right, Parks, Outdoor Dining, Gatherings <10, Gyms, Indoor Dining (40%), Gatherings <25, Indoor Dining (100%), Large Concerts
Emily Oster
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You open the things farthest to the left first. State parks—low risk (outdoors safer), high benefit (people need something to do)—should be among the first things open. Outdoor dining before low-density indoor dining before dense indoor dining. Smaller gatherings before larger gatherings, and so on.

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We can argue (and will!) about where things fall on this line. Should indoor dining come before or after gyms? Indoor dining is probably less safe (it’s harder to wear a mask), but the benefits are higher (restaurants are a more important part of the economy, and they benefit more people in terms of income and consumption). We may need to argue about what we value in terms of keeping people employed and sustaining mental health versus illness risk.

But once we’ve agreed on the ranking, or a policymaker has consulted with experts and decided, all that’s left is to draw a cutoff. To decide, based on some notion of community rates, what is open and what is not. I’ve illustrated one example below. A key point is that even with the same ranking, different policymakers will draw their lines differently. Some states in the U.S. have been more conservative than others around COVID. A difference in these cutoffs is one way to visualize, say, the difference between South Dakota and Maine. They may agree on rankings and disagree on where to draw the colored lines.

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The same chart as above, with Parks, Outdoor Dining, and Gatherings <10 beneath the header "Case Rate per 100K > 100"; Gyms and Indoor Dining (40%) beneath "Case Rate per 100k 25 to 100"; Gatherings <25  under the header "Case Rate per 100k 5 to 25"; and Indoor Dining and outdoor Concerts under the heading "Case Rate per 100K <5"s
Emily Oster

By ranking activities in this way we can also recognize, even more strongly, the value of restrictions on the right-hand end. Part of the reason for putting some things “first” on this list is the recognition that they have high value for risk. Limiting the things at the high-risk/lower-reward end of the line—say, concerts or dense indoor dining—is important because it lets us do the things that are more important. If we allow the high-risk, lower-benefit activities, we run the risk of increasing COVID-19 rates so much we have to limit the items at the other end of the scale.

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Now, let’s add schools.

The data is showing schools themselves are low risk; not everyone agrees with this, I understand, but it is the premise for what I will say below. Beyond this, I think we mostly do agree that in-person learning has large benefits. For the youngest learners, the risks are lowest and benefits highest. If you asked me, I’d put schools in the ranking as below (note I’ve separated out age group):

The first line, with elementary/middle schools and high schools added between "Parks" and "Outdoor Dining"
Emily Oster
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In fact, though, this isn’t where schools are. I think we can represent more or less everything we see by moving schools in the ranking; see below for what I think policymakers’ actual implied ranking, as demonstrated by their decisions, is:

The original line, with schools between Gatherings <25 and Indoor Dining (100%).
Emily Oster
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This clearly illustrates the thinking in areas where schools have remained closed while other things are open. What may be less obvious, but more illuminating, is what this reveals about areas that did open schools. In most cases it isn’t really that they prioritized schools. They just opened everything. Open schools are a byproduct of open everything. The fact is that neither decision prioritizes schools.

Ranking schools “wrong” in lower prevalence areas led them not to open while other things did. Ranking them “wrong” in higher prevalence areas has led us to having too limited efforts to control community spread in order to help schools.

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If we actually made schools a priority, we would recognize that restrictions on other activities are necessary to keep schools open. This is precisely what Europe has done as they have moved back toward lockdown. Grocery stores, hospitals, essential services, and schools remain open. Because while those places are not risk-free, they are vital.

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What this framework makes clear to me is that very few, if any, places in the U.S. did the “right thing.” Everyone made the same mistake, misclassifying schools among reopening priorities, and it just manifested differently. If we can recognize that, I believe we can find a stronger consensus around the idea that schools should get higher priority.

Of course, prioritizing schools would also mean providing more resources to open safely. The main way we can help schools is by controlling community spread, but making teachers and others safe at school is also key. This means requiring masks, yes, but also providing good PPE and improving ventilation. It means better testing and screening—both symptomatic and asymptomatic—and money for substitutes. Prioritizing schools means not just keeping them open but keeping them as safe as we can.

Finally, I will renew my call here for transparent stating of priorities by policymakers. When I wrote about the risk-benefit matrix, I suggested governors should put a version of this up at a press conference to talk about how they were weighing what to do. But a matrix is maybe too complicated. A line is even easier. Let’s have some transparent, public accounting of how our priorities stack up.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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