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PODCAST | RHODE ISLAND REPORT

Here’s what parenting expert Emily Oster says about vaccinating your kids against COVID-19

On the Rhode Island Report podcast, the Brown University professor also talks about test-to-stay programs such as the one launched in Westerly schools

Brown University economics professor Emily Oster speaks to Boston Globe reporter Edward Fitzpatrick for the Rhode Island Report podcast.
Brown University economics professor Emily Oster speaks to Boston Globe reporter Edward Fitzpatrick for the Rhode Island Report podcast.Scott Helman

PROVIDENCE — Brown University economics professor Emily Oster, who has been both lauded and vilified for suggesting it was safe for schools to reopen amid the pandemic, is now weighing in on vaccines for school children.

On the Rhode Island Report podcast, Oster said the evidence indicates that children ages 5 to 11 should get vaccinated now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending it and Rhode Island is expanding COVID-19 vaccination eligibility to that age group.

“I think that parents should get their kids vaccinated,” Oster said. “I think that we have seen a lot of evidence to suggest that the COVID vaccine is generally safe.”

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She noted that many 12- to 15-year-olds have received vaccinations, and a Pfizer trial indicated the vaccine is safe and effective for 5-to-11-year-olds. “So all of that, I think, should be very reassuring,” she said.

Oster acknowledged that some parents remain hesitant to vaccinate their children, even if they were enthusiastic about getting the vaccine themselves. “There’s this sort of feeling of, well, the disease is lower risk for kids, so the benefit side of this is smaller,” she said.

Also, she acknowledged that the Pfizer trial size was small, involving about 2,500 children.

But Oster, who lives in Providence, said she will be getting vaccines for her children as soon as she can. “I feel very comfortable with what we have seen and am very eager to get my kids vaccinated,” she said.

Oster – who launched the COVID-19 School Data Hub, which addresses how the pandemic has affected schools across the country – has received national attention since writing a July 2020 Atlantic opinion piece titled “Parents Can’t Wait Around Forever. We need to know the facts about kids and COVID-19. Now.”

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“I think that broadly I got right that schools were not the sources of super-spreading events or even much spread at all,” Oster said during the podcast. “What I think I got wrong was there were many moments in which I did not recognize sufficiently some of the fear and some of the discomfort that was driving people and fell too quickly into, well, let me show you the data.”

Oster, who has written three books on pregnancy and parenting, has faced criticism from those who note that she is not an infectious disease expert and that she is offering advice to public schools while teaching at a private Ivy League university and sending her children to private schools.

For example, Maya Chavez, a former high school social studies teacher in Providence, told the New York Times that “there is a serious disconnect between (Oster’s) idea of what school looks like and the reality.”

But Oster said, “There’s a lot of value in bringing many different perspectives, particularly to a problem that is novel like this.” She said, “Much of what we’re all doing at this point is analyzing data, and we all have training in analyzing data.”

And she said she believes she has been able to help during the crisis.

“I know that, in the end, some people think the opposite of this, but I feel like I was helpful in opening schools,” Oster said. “Maybe some kids got to go to school because I got yelled at and, like, that’s totally worth it.”

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Last week, Westerly launched Rhode Island’s first COVID test-to-stay pilot program, which will allow unvaccinated students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade to stay in school after an in-school COVID-19 exposure if they test negative for the virus.

And Oster said she is an “enormous proponent” of test-to-stay programs.

“We’ve seen that quarantines are very disruptive for kids, they cause a lot of missed school, they’re disruptive for parents,” she said. “And it is also the case that we do not have good evidence suggesting that quarantines ... prevent COVID. And we have good evidence to suggest that test-to-stay is equivalent to quarantines in terms of limiting amount of COVID in schools.”

Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player below:


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.