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The question we want to ask is not whether we open schools but when: Professor

Engy Ziedan, Tulane professor and healthcare economist joins the Yahoo Finance Live panel to discuss the report on the effects of school reopenings on COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Video Transcript

- Welcome back to Yahoo Finance Live. A new study is taking a closer look at the impact school reopenings are having on COVID-19 hospitalisations. In some cases, reopening schools actually contributed to a decline in the hospitalization of some of these patients. Let's bring in the author of that study, Engy Ziedan. She's a Tulane professor and health care economist. Engy, it's good to talk to you today, an interesting study here we should point out that was conducted back in October. What specifically did you find, the correlation between schools reopening and hospitalizations?

ENGY ZIEDAN: So our data spans the period between January 2020 and October 30 of 2020 and includes all counties in the United States. What we found is that for counties where schools opened in person or in hybrid mode, but the counties themselves had low baseline hospitalizations prior to reopening, reopening was relatively safe, that is we do not see increases in hospitalizations after the reopening. However, in counties where the baseline period had a high hospitalization rate, we are indecisive or have inconclusive evidence that hospitalization rates have not increased. Our study is consistent with evidence that was found in Germany. Specifically one interesting thing that was found is that in some counties there may be decreases in hospitalizations post-school reopenings. A theory that we have is that individuals change their behavior in response to school reopening, so that-- I think a common misconception is that the counterfactual of not opening in person is that there is social distancing occurring because everyone is at home and that counterfactual may not be true.

- Yeah. And, obviously, every time we talk about schools, we got to be a little bit careful here because, as we saw the Dr. Oz controversy last year, people are very touchy about reopening schools. But when we talk about the health impacts, which you were discussing there, there's also the economic impacts, which we've seen play out in the data as well, which is interesting to see women who are parents here, moms being impacted a lot more in terms of employment data than fathers here. Obviously, we talk about the economy reopening here, which is very difficult to do if you are a parent and you have kids at home. How much of that should be stressed here when talking about the decision to reopen schools as well?

ENGY ZIEDAN: So reopening schools is a decision that has trade-offs. You know, we often emphasize health and education, both as forms of human capital. There's also a household level trade-off. You mentioned, you know, female labor force participation. Females usually bear a higher share of the home production and child care. And so they're more affected by online learning, especially for younger age children. So there's multiple trade-offs. I think in going forward the question we want to ask is not whether we should open schools or not, but when. And the "when" is particularly how safe does it need to get before we open schools?

The obvious answer is we're not going to wait until there are zero cases per 100,000 to open schools because then we've clearly favored the health capital over the education capital significantly, so something reasonable and something relatively safe. And that's really what us as health economists are after, which is identifying the threshold at which reopening schools may be safe in some communities.

- What is that threshold? If you look at a place like California here-- it's interesting you make that point about schools often sort of helping control the spread, which is something I have heard here on the ground with schools in some counties that have significant barriers that have been placed, there a lot more out in the open, and yet we're also looking at a very deadly surge right now. So if you look at areas that have the most significant number of cases, hospitalizations, what is the recommendation for schools that operate there?

ENGY ZIEDAN: So our empirical study is based on hospitalisations per 100,000 and we found that counties that had a baseline of 36 to 44 hospitalisations per 100,000 per week or more, so higher than that threshold, we cannot say that they did not have increases in hospitalizations once they reopen. So we think that below that threshold, with some confidence interval, there were no increases in hospitalizations. That's our empirical finding. We're about to publish the county level per 100,000 per week data and it can be calculated from the HHS's website on healthdata.gov. But what we're going to do is we're going to aggregate the hospital level count to the county level count to give ed leaders some idea of what's happening in their county week by week.

- That's a very complicated question of when to reopen here. I appreciate you bringing us the latest data there. Tulane professor and health care economist Professor Ziedan, appreciate you joining us. Be well.