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Meet the Brown University economist who argues that K-12 schools aren’t super-spreaders of the coronavirus

The Providence Teachers Union held a rally outside the Rhode Island Department of Education building last month to demand safe conditions with school reopenings.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

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Happy Tuesday and welcome to Rhode Map, your daily guide to everything happening in the Ocean State. I’m Dan McGowan and it’s painful to be a New York sports fan right now. Follow me on Twitter @DanMcGowan or send tips to

ICYMI: Rhode Island was up to 26,294 confirmed coronavirus cases on Friday, after adding 167 new cases. The most recent overall daily test-positive rate was 1.7 percent, but the first-time positive rate was 5.5 percent. The state announced three more deaths, bringing the total to 1,130. There were 112 people in the hospital.


Today is supposed to be the first day of full in-person learning for every public school in Rhode Island, but it’s still unclear exactly how many of our schools aren’t quite ready to reopen.

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If you’re paying close attention to education in the age of the coronavirus, you might want to check out Brown University economist Emily Oster’s piece in The Atlantic on how schools don’t appear to be the super-spreaders of the virus that some predicted.

Oster agreed to answer a few questions for Rhode Map on the research she is doing.

Q: Your research shows infection rates have been quite low among both students and staff, but do we have a sense of whether kids just aren’t the super-spreaders we thought they might be, or if all the precautions that have been taken (like staggered schedules) are helping to prevent a spread?

Oster: My guess is that it is both. Schools in our data are taking a lot of precautions (especially masks), which likely matters a lot. Based on other data (Florida, for example), we haven’t seen huge outbreaks even though they are taking fewer of these.


But this is the kind of question we hope our data can help answer. Our next big analysis task, once we pull in another round of data, is to look at changes in case rates over time and correlate them with precautions. I’m especially eager to do this by age group. It is possible that elementary school students are generally low risk, but high school students really need a lot of precautions. That’s something we can only learn with data.

Q: There’s a lot of fear that we could see a spike in cases as the weather turns colder. Do you think we have enough data to be making long-term decisions on school reopenings?

Oster: Is anything long-term these days? I hear this fear a lot and I think it’s legitimate, but it’s hard to base decision-making on it now. What I think we do need to do is be ready to pivot if we need to. This could be due to a case spike, or it could be due to fear of one.

My bigger concern in the winter is we will have too many people out with suspected symptoms and schools will have to close for some period to address this. Again, we need good testing and a plan to pivot if necessary.

Q: You sound a little bit like Governor Gina Raimondo when you write about the harm that not reopening schools can cause to students and families. How do you think Rhode Island is doing when it comes to schools?


Oster: Broadly, well. My sense is that reopenings are going fairly smoothly and kids and parents are happy to be in school. It’s perhaps not surprising that I would say I’d like to see more transparency in reporting. We do have periodic reports by school, but limited information on counts of kids and staff in in-person school. This would provide more context, and I know that there are teachers and parents in Rhode Island who feel that they are still not getting enough information to make good decisions. Selfishly, I’d like more Rhode Island districts to enroll in our dashboard.

Q: What’s the biggest unanswered question about the virus and schools?

Oster: The role of schools in spreading out to the community. We need better analysis (this will not come out of what my team is doing, at least not directly) on whether opening schools is leading to community spread. It’s not impossible to imagine doing this analysis given the staggered rates of school reopenings, but I haven’t seen anyone do it in the US yet.

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⚓ Last week’s criminal trial of former campaign consultant Jeff Britt offered a rare glimpse into the win-at-all-costs culture of Rhode Island politics, as witness after witness detailed the strategies employed to help House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello defeat Steve Frias in 2016.

⚓ The judge in the Britt case is unlikely to issue a verdict until after the election, but he made it clear on Friday that Rhode Island’s money laundering law is poorly written.


⚓ Things didn’t work out for former governor Lincoln Chafee when he ran for president as a Libertarian earlier this year, but that hasn’t kept the Libertarians away from Rhode Island. Ed Fitzpatrick talked with the party’s vice presidential candidate, Spike Cohenwhen he visited the state last week.

⚓ This week’s Ocean State Innovators Q&A is with Justin Pasquazzico-founder and president of ASTRO (Arts, Sports, and Technology Resource Organization), a learning center for youths and adults based in Pawtucket. Have someone Ed should talk to for this weekly interview? E-mail him at

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⚓ Health: The study of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine has been paused due to an unexplained illness in a study participant.

⚓ Politics: My colleague Jess Bidgood has a fascinating look at US Senator Lindsey Graham, who in recent years has jettisoned his conciliatory political persona and hitched his wagon to President Trump’s fiery star.

⚓ SCOTUS: Republicans and Democrats offered sharply divergent arguments Monday in a Supreme Court confirmation fight whose outcome is likely to steer the court to the right for years, vying to define Judge Amy Coney Barrett and frame the political stakes of President Trump’s rush to install her before he faces voters.

⚓ Sports: Columnist Tara Sullivan explains why Bill Belichick might be doing the best coaching job of his life this season.

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Each day, Rhode Map offers a cheat sheet breaking down what’s happening in Rhode Island. Have an idea? E-mail us at


⚓ Contest: Don’t forget to pick the winners of the general election in Rhode Island for a chance to win Rhode Map tote bags and gift cards to Frog & Toad.

⚓ Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman will host a virtual discussion at 1 p.m. with Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, that focuses on what happens when people stop trusting science.

⚓ The Providence City Council Finance Committee meets at 5 p.m. to discuss the status of the city budget.

⚓ The Warwick School Committee has scheduled a 5:30 p.m. meeting that will include more discussion on the reopening of schools.

⚓ Do you ❤️ Rhode Map? Your subscription is what makes it possible. We’ve got a great offer here.

Thanks for reading. Send comments and suggestions to, or follow me on Twitter @DanMcGowan. See you tomorrow.

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Dan McGowan can be reached at Follow him @danmcgowan.