In lieu of a national policy on schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, states and individual districts have been left to decide for themselves how to balance competing concerns of child development, coronavirus spread and safety.
Emily Oster, economics professor at Brown University and co-author of the website COVID Explained, says priorities need to shift, because data doesn't show that schools are a primary source of COVID-19 outbreaks or broad community spread.
"A lot of what we're seeing, particularly in lower prevalence areas ... we're not seeing what looks like a lot of spread in schools," she said. "There are cases associated with schools, but they're acquired elsewhere."
COVID-19 outbreaks due to gatherings completely separate from schools complicate school operations, said Oster, because those cases then force students and staff to isolate. In addition, the different thresholds communities are using to determine when to revert to remote learning has led to confusion and frustration.
Boston has used a 4 percent positivity threshold to determine whether the schools can continue phasing in students for in-person learning. Oster said so long as the "prevalence" rate in Boston remains where it's at now, more reopening could happen.
"I would like to see more reopening in places like Boston, if the prevalence rate stays where it is," she said.
But, Oster said societal expectations will need to shift to prioritize schools being open instead of other indoor activities like dining.
"We're going to need to trade schools for something else," she said. "Part of what people have found very frustrating is this idea that schools are closed, but other things we think that are higher risk but potentially lower benefit are still open."
For Oster, reopening schools in a meaningful way will take a paradigm shift in what aspects of life communities place at top priority.
"Schools should be among the first to open, and last to close," said Oster, who noted that mask-wearing and social distancing is a cheap and effective tool for safe reopening in schools.
Emily Oster is an economics professor at Brown University, author of books on pregnancy and parenting and co-author of the website COVID Explained.