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Welcome to the Schools Issue of the Highlight

As schools prepare to open, we’re crunching numbers with the economist who fought to reopen schools, exposing the myth of the perfect college experience, dressing for class, and more.

This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention handed down the sort of ambivalent guidance for school reopenings that makes parents shudder. Schools ought to fully reopen this fall, the agency said, suggesting a swift end was in sight to a 15-month ordeal that at one point left 55 million American children facing a bootstrapped education.

But the agency left open the questions of whether masks, social distancing, and other protective measures should be mandated, leaving the matter of hammering out the details to local leaders and administrators already confused by months of reversals and, now, the emerging threat of the delta variant. And so, weeks from the opening bells, parents, teachers, and children themselves brace for the uncertainty of returning to class in the midst of an enduring pandemic.

It’s in this sort of environment — in the “information vacuum” created by Covid-19, writes Vox’s Anna North — that a new type of pundit has emerged to influence policy and practices across the nation. And when it comes to schools, none has more influence than Brown University economist Emily Oster. Long a parenting expert, Oster waded into the health crisis when she began collecting data on Covid-19 in schools and called for them to reopen. It hasn’t been without controversy.

In this month’s issue of the Highlight, we take a deep dive into schools, and our cover story looks at Oster and her influence. “We’re facing basically this existential threat to schooling for all these kids, and public health,” Oster told North of her motivation in the early days of the pandemic, “and the best data that the CDC can marshal on this has been put together by a professor in her basement.”

Also in this issue, author and journalist Rainesford Stauffer examines how college is sold as a four-year growth experiment best experienced by young, wealthy kids, though that hardly reflects the reality. When Stauffer asked subjects whether it was truly “the best four years of your life,” few said yes, instead noting the backbreaking expense, the risk of social dangers including substance abuse and assault, and the disappointments that came afterward. And Stauffer knows the pitfalls of this misrepresentation of college. She herself had a tricky relationship with being a “traditional” college student — she dropped out.

Georgetown law professor and juvenile justice expert Kristin Henning looks at the rise of policing in schools and how, for children of color in particular, it transformed classrooms into detention centers where a lifetime of criminalization begins. So, she asks in an excerpt from her new book The Rage of Innocence, were Columbine and other school shootings behind the boom in “school resource officers”? Or is something else at play?

And finally, we have some fun at a Los Angeles high school that transforms each weekend into a vintage mecca for youths, and share an illustrated history of the enduringly bland, hardly changed school lunch.

Emily Oster is a Brown University economics professor who has emerged as one of the most influential voices on schools and Covid-19.
Philip Keith for Vox

How Emily Oster became one of the most respected — and reviled — voices of the pandemic

As schools finally prepare to reopen widely, the Ivy League economist and parenting expert reflects on her vastly influential, and polarizing, role.

By Anna North

Illustration of a lonely girl lost in a maze that resembles a college campus. Paige Vickers for Vox

The best four years of your life?

Dropping out helped me see the lies we were sold about the college experience.

By Rainesford Stauffer

A Los Angeles school police officer patrols the halls of a school in 2015.
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Cops at the schoolyard gate

How the number of police officers in schools skyrocketed in recent decades — and made for a harrowing education for Black and brown youth.

By Kristin Henning

Sixteen-year-old Bella Snow shows off her look at the Melrose Trading Post market, a teen vintage mecca held on the grounds of a Los Angeles high school.
Jessica Chou for Vox

LA’s favorite flea market is a teen fashion paradise

What does a cool high schooler wear these days? For Gen Z, the defining style is that there isn’t one.

By Indya Brown

An illustration of a school lunch tray with soda, fries, pizza, and half a banana. Ally Shwed for Vox

Why school lunches feel like they’re frozen in time

The fascinating history behind why students today are still eating square pizzas and crinkle fries, with cartons of milk.

By Ally Shwed

Future Perfect

How the US is preparing to fight — and win — a war in space

Even Better

How to make your anger work for you

Future Perfect

We have treatments for opioid addiction that work. So why is the problem getting worse?

View all stories in The Highlight

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