Courtesy Penguin Random House

Their kids’ schooling ranks high among the challenges for many workers over the past year. Heading into this new school year, concerns about rising infections and Delta mean continued uncertainty.

As schools begin to reopen for the fall, what’s the outlook and what should employers be doing? For answers, we spoke with Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University, and author of the new book The Family Firm. Oster is a proponent of using data to make better decisions as parents. Last year, she set up a database to track Covid cases in schools and became an influential voice arguing that schools could reopen safely. (Read this profile in The Guardian yesterday for more background on Oster.)

Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity:

We have rising infections and the spread of the Delta variant in the US. How do you advise parents to think about that in terms of both the return to school and return to office?

I will start with the overarching picture about how I think this changes things for parents. First: it's very important for people to keep in mind that even with the Delta variant kids are very low risk. Serious Covid illness in kids is really, really rare, and we’re getting increasing data showing nearly all kids recover very quickly, and long-term symptoms are unusual. I saw something basically arguing that among Covid deaths in the US, more or less none of them are outside of kids with preexisting conditions. None is probably not quite the right conclusion, but effectively the initial thing we said at the beginning of the pandemic, which was that kids are at little risk—that turns out to be true. And it’s still true with Delta.

It's not that there are no risks. It's not that they can't get Covid, but they are fairly low risk. That is also true with Delta. What this changes is the calculus about where case rates are. We had the idea at the beginning of the summer that case rates are going to keep going down and by the time we come back to the fall, Covid rates are going to be really low—at this point, it’s clear that is not where we are going to be.  The Delta variant is more contagious, and it’s been devastating already in areas with limited vaccination rates. We aren’t likely to see the death rates we saw last winter -- not close -- but the case rates are high. And that's partly because with a more contagious variant, it's much more difficult to get to a place where you have herd immunity.

Even in places with pretty high vaccine penetrations, there's probably not high enough. That means when we come to the fall, we're going to see some cases. The thing that families are going to have to think about is what is the case rate that you find sufficient or too much to put your kids back in school, or to go back to work. I spend a lot of time in what I write helping people try to work through the numbers on that. How do you think about a return to work with a case rate of 20 or 30 (or 100) per 100,000 per day?  

For schools in particular: we are continuing to see reopening plans move forward and this makes sense, especially when we take into account the increasing evidence that actually it's really bad for kids not to be in school. For most kids, this is a really problematic thing. So it's a moment of uncertainty, but in the case of schools I do not think we are going to change course now.

You make the distinction in your writing between the question, 'should I be worried?' and the question, 'should I do something differently?' Can you explain why that distinction is important?

There's a state of being, which is being worried, which is I'm thinking about this. It's in my head. I'm worried about it. When people ask, should I be worried? Well, you shouldn't just be worried—being worried is not helpful. I've always worried, my main thing is just being worried all the time, but I recognize it's not very helpful to just be worried. Sometimes it's useful to switch into saying, 'okay actually, should I be doing something else?' So I can always choose to be worried and to have this occupy my brain all the time, but being worried is not a way to move forward. When we are worried, there is a moment to stop and say, 'am I worried?' And there's nothing I can do about it. All I can do about this is just worry. As opposed to 'I'm worried, and I have a decision to make that could alleviate some of that worry.' And if there's something in that space, then you can kind of try to not worry.

Do you have any specific advice about adults returning to the workplace?

The truth is that for vaccinated adults, the risks of Covid continue to be small. The Delta variant, yes, it seems like we're seeing more asymptomatic and mild breakthrough infections. But in terms of the personal risk, of getting seriously ill or dying of Covid, it's just vastly, vastly, vastly, vastly, vastly reduced once you are vaccinated. The place where people are thinking about return to work, especially for parents is, okay, am I going to get an infection? And am I going to spread it to my kids? That's much, much less likely if you are vaccinated—the vaccines protect you against some of that. But there is a risk of that happening. And so one of the things I tell people is to work through some of those numbers; most offices are now requiring masks again, and that’s another layer of protection.

There's almost a 'safety lasagna' approach to this to say, 'okay, let me decide upfront, what are the thresholds at which I'm going to do different things?' Is there a threshold in which I'm going to say, this is just too risky, I'm going to insist on working from home. Is there a threshold below that where you would wear a mask and try to distance more? And then what's the threshold over which you would be willing to be unmasked. You can establish that upfront. Then you don't have to worry about it if you already have decided what your numbers are.

Is 'safety lasagna' a technical term?

I made that up. Actually people call it Swiss cheese. It's a Swiss cheese model.

Switching to the caregiving dimension of this, do you think hybrid and remote work arrangements that companies are talking about are net positive for caregivers?

In some forms, yes. And 'net' is always a complicated thing. Before the pandemic, I wrote something in The Atlantic called 'End the plague of secret parenting,' which was about how we should parent in the open and that one of the values of parenting in the open was the opportunity to say the things that we need to make it possible to parent and work. In particular, for people with elementary-school-aged kids, or any kinds of kinds of kids, there are only some periods of time that you can see them. So I can see my kids from five to eight. And if my job ends at eight then I don't see my kids. I think for many of us there is a lot of value in having that time available.

We would be willing to work after that, or more before that, or early in the morning, or move things around. Even before the pandemic, there was this observation that, for parents, for people who are doing caregiving, all hours may not be the same. The pandemic kind of forced us to figure out some things about how we can make remote work possible. I would hope ideally that coming out of that we would have an opportunity to say, 'Hey, I've shown you that I can work from home. So like, maybe it's okay if I go home at five. And then I work at home from eight to 10 because I've been at home for the whole last year and it's been fine.' There's an opportunity to make that work and to make that work better, particularly for working women. I'm not sure we will take advantage of that opportunity that I would like us to. But maybe.

And the reason is the biases that people have around proximity and what work looks like?

Yes. And this feeling, particularly in some kinds of jobs, that facetime is important and don't you want to show me how devoted you are to your job? Same reasons we had this problem before.

Looking ahead at the coming school year, is it going to be more manageable for parents?

Honestly, I don't know. I want to be clear, there are places in America where schools were open 100% all year, last year, and they will be open 100% full in-person for the next year. Putting aside that set of places, for people whose schools were very disrupted this year, there's been a lot more focus on how everybody needs to be in school, we're going to have everyone in school. So it is likely that most schools in America will try to open with some full in person, with people can be there all the time. The piece I am very uncertain about is how much we'll see disruptions in the provision of school that will make it even more difficult for parents. It's one thing to plan about the existence of remote school. It's another thing to every two weeks have to have 10 days of remote school, which I wasn't planning for. We all know as parents, the worst thing is when your kid is sick in the morning. And the quarantine is like an expanded version of the stomach flu. That's the piece I'm most concerned about.

Companies have introduced caregiving benefits such as tutoring and childcare. Do you have any sense of whether those things will continue, and what should companies be doing?

People struggled to find childcare and so things like backup childcare, things like some flexibility at work when you need it are important benefits. Some of the things that came up, things like tutoring, I'm not sure that my job is the place that I would look for that. Even my job, which has a lot of very nice college students at it. It's important for firms to think about what are the things that I have a comparative advantage to provide. So in some sense, I'm not sure the firm needs to find me the childcare. They could give me the flexibility or the money to get the childcare, but it's not exactly like I want the firm to be my nanny. Sometimes it's important for employers to remember, there are tax benefits to providing services in kind, but sometimes it's probably better to just give them money or give them flexibility

What can companies do to combat structural issues that impact parents, like proximity bias?

One thing is for people at the top to model behaviors. Where some of this comes down to is just some kind of nebulous idea about culture. And if you have built a culture in which that kind of thing is acceptable or is a part of what we expect and in which the kind of people at the top are doing it, that, probably makes a difference. There's an important role for men—just realistically so many of these issues come up more so for women, there's an inherent inequity. Dads taking paternity leave, it matters. It matters to help people think about that.

Part of it is just normalizing the experience of parenting while working and dads and leaders of organizations are key to that?

That's exactly right. Actually, in some ways, I'm optimistic about this because of the generation of people a decade younger than I am. When I talk to the people who are in their early thirties, there's way more equity of expectations across across men and women in how much access they expect to have to their kids. There's like much more 'I'm taking paternity leave and she's taking maternity leave. We're going to take a similar amount of time.' Whereas even in my early forties space, that was less of a thing. So that makes me optimistic. But you've got to actually do it.

One of the big things that happened over the last year is that we had millions of women who left the workforce. The pretty clear explanation is that they took on additional caregiving responsibilities, which made it hard to continue working in that context. What do you think it will take to keep women in the workforce and bring those who left the workforce back?

The simplest answer is full-time in person school every day, not just that happens for a week. We need to be a little patient with this because it's going to be a little while before we get to the kind of stability with child rearing that is going to let people return. There's an opportunity for companies here, because there are a lot of really high human capital women who left the workforce, who now need to come back in. That is an opportunity. You've got to find them. Maybe there's an opportunity to find them in the short run and say, 'Hey, come. And we'll build in some flexibility at the beginning with this, we'll build in a ramp up expectation. And we will understand that the next six months are really hard to predict, but here's an opportunity to get really good people.' So it's partly going to require firms to be a little flexible with their expectations and see what they can deliver.

People talk about returnships, where people come back from caregiving responsibilities, but with more flexibility and different expectations...

Yes. There are people who have left the workforce to do this who now probably have reflected on 'Hey, I want to return full-time.' So I think there's an opportunity to ask, is there a way to job share more? I certainly always thought it was something we should be asking more, particularly in these jobs that are like 95 hours a week, which are not that conducive to seeing your family. Why do we have just one person doing that? And so, is there more of an opportunity for flexibility on part-time...European full-time/American part-time. [Laughs]

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