Emily Oster on the Importance of Classroom Testing

A conversation with the Brown University economist about testing’s role in reopening schools

February 17, 2021

The CDC recently released new guidance to help community leaders reopen schools and keep children in the classroom. It advises a layered approach involving masks, social distancing, handwashing, ventilation and contact tracing, with testing providing an additional layer of COVID-19 prevention. 

Amid the vaccine rollout, pooled classroom testing remains an important part of reopening schools. By arming schools and communities with data, testing can inform these important decisions. 

Concentric by Ginkgo aims to provide easy, affordable pooled testing to K-12 schools across the country to aid reopening efforts. We’re currently collaborating with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) to offer pooled COVID-19 testing services to public K-12 schools in Massachusetts.

We sat down with Brown University Economics Professor Emily Oster, who co-founded the website Covid-Explained, to learn more about the impact of school testing and reopening efforts across the country. Oster has become a trusted voice among parents by combining practicality with compassion while analyzing the trade-offs around decisions families face every day.

What impact are school closures having on students and communities?

While there are many impacts we can see and feel, there are some that have begun to be measured. The most measurable impact is on academic achievement. We’re seeing much higher rates of students failing and drops in literacy development — it’s really hard to learn how to read on a video call. Some of the data we’re seeing suggests early grades like first grade are particularly impacted. Those grades set the foundation for a lot of things and the negative impact is easy to measure. Right now there’s a lot of uncertainty around how much of that academic achievement can be made up through things like summer school or tutoring. 

Other negative impacts are harder to measure, like the toll on mental health. Certainly anecdotally, it’s been suggested that the rates of mental health diagnoses are increasing in young people. 

All of these losses are more significant for lower-income children and students of color. In order to learn online you have to be online — a laptop, a reliable internet connection, and a chaperone to support your online learning, like a parent who can be home during the school day. 

What are some of the major anxieties on the minds of parents right now? 

Parents are very worried. They’re worried about sending their kids to school, and they’re worried about not sending their kids to school. There’s the fear of COVID-19 but also the fear of what their kids are missing out on as the pandemic continues. It’s not an easy choice to make, and not every parent even has a choice available. I’ve also heard a lot of concerns from parents lately around vaccines. Parents want to know when their child will be vaccinated, which is still a big unknown, and what life will be like until they are.

What role does testing play in getting kids back in the classroom safely?

Classroom testing is incredibly important. I worry that we aren’t talking about testing enough, particularly as the vaccines continue to rollout. We need to recognize that kids are not likely to be vaccinated within this school year and, therefore, we must think about how to reopen classrooms in the absence of vaccines, which may be necessary even through the fall.

Testing is a big part of this effort for two reasons. One involves actually detecting cases of COVID-19, with the basic goal of catching a case and preventing further spread. The second piece is about building trust and comfort among parents and teachers. If they know students are being tested every week, that’s going to provide a lot of reassurance and build confidence in returning to in-person learning. 

What basic questions do schools need to answer before starting a testing program, and what are some factors that can vary among schools?

Different schools can use classroom testing in different ways. An important first question to answer is who is going to be prioritized for testing. Will it be older kids, younger kids, staff, teachers? 

The other piece that’s going to vary a lot across districts is the individual comfort level with school testing and how many people opt in. There’s a lot of variation across states in how common asymptomatic testing is, as well as people’s understanding of how it works and why it’s important. For example, in Rhode Island there are 20,000 tests performed each day in a state of one million people. I can go to the drive-through testing center at the zoo with my kids and get results back quickly and this is somewhat normalized. Elsewhere, this asymptomatic testing isn’t as common. The process may seem unfamiliar, which could become a barrier if testing is brought into schools. Once the community learns that this kind of testing is easy and comfortable, and why it’s important, that will go a long way in building positive momentum. 

What advice would you give to school districts or communities that are trying to build awareness around testing?

One important thing is painting a picture of why this testing is important and what it’s going to look like. People need to be able to visualize it. Instead of just saying “we’re going to do an asymptomatic testing program,” it needs to be explained step by step — for example, the students self swab, the samples goes in a tube, a few days later the results come back, and the results are posted on a school website.

There are a lot of ways districts can make the process more comfortable for students, too. Students can be agents of change in a community. My kids’ school has a big print-out of cartoon characters like Black Panther with giant noses on them and a Q-tip swab. It sounds ridiculous, of course, but it helps kids see what the process will be like. It makes it fun and takes away the fear.

Ultimately, this is about engaging the community so that people are involved in the process and  are taking action as a collective at a time when many people feel powerless. Testing is an easy way people can participate in the solution and help get us back to normal.