Education

Emily Oster, the Brown economist, is launching a new data hub on schools and the pandemic.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, a lack of centralized, national data on schooling has made it difficult for parents, educators, policymakers and researchers to make decisions and analyze trends.

On Wednesday, a team at Brown University led by Emily Oster, an economist and author, is launching the Covid-19 School Data Hub, a site that includes data from about 56,000 schools across 31 states. It is one of the most comprehensive efforts yet to document how schools operated during the pandemic, and, eventually, the researchers hope, measure the impact on children and the education system itself.

The site’s data will show when school buildings were open, closed or operating in hybrid mode. In 11 states, the hub can tally the number of students who participated in each mode of learning. It also includes counts of coronavirus cases discovered in schools in 30 states.

In the coming months, Professor Oster said, her team hopes to add data on student achievement and school enrollment to the site, tracking whether students who left local schools last year returned. In the future, researchers may be able to answer if and how school closures affected high school graduation rates, crime, obesity and mental health needs, she noted.

Professor Oster emerged early in the pandemic as a well-known voice in favor of in-person learning. In addition to her scholarly research on economics and public health, she is the author of a series of popular parenting books.

In an initial analysis using the new data hub, posted Wednesday, Professor Oster demonstrated that third- through eighth-grade test scores in Virginia declined the most at schools that operated predominantly online last year, and that the impact was greater in math than in reading.

Those findings fit within a broader, emerging body of research showing that millions of students experienced academic setbacks during the pandemic, with Black and Latino students, as well as students from low-income families, affected most heavily. Those groups also had the least access to open classrooms.

The data hub will fill an important information gap. There is no federal database of coronavirus cases discovered inside school buildings or during extracurricular activities such as sports.

The federal government has conducted a limited survey on when various schools operated in-person or online, and how many students participated in each setting. But the survey focuses only on fourth grade and eighth grade in 4,000 schools.

The hub is funded by several high-profile philanthropies: The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan; Emergent Ventures, a program at George Mason University supported by Peter Thiel, the technology venture capitalist; and Arnold Ventures, founded by hedge fund billionaire John D. Arnold and his wife, Laura.

While the effort is broad, some pressing questions may be hard to answer, Professor Oster said. States are not collecting data on school quarantining policies or virus-related closures this academic year, for example. And there is not yet much concrete information on how individual schools plan to help students recover academically from the pandemic.

“When kids are far behind, how do you get them caught up?” Professor Oster asked. “That’s not just a pandemic problem.”

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