Priority in Mass. vote-by-mail bill: Improving the mail itself (copy)

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, chairs a new special Senate committee, which plans its first listening session Tuesday and is tasked with envisioning a post-coronavirus pandemic Massachusetts.

Addressing gaps in digital access will be among the early focus areas for a new Senate panel tasked with envisioning what Massachusetts might look like on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Senate's Special Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts: Post Pandemic Resiliency, chaired by Pittsfield Sen. Adam Hinds, plans to hold its first listening session Tuesday afternoon, with testimony covering issues of housing, the digital divide, workforce inequities and topics relating to Southeastern Massachusetts.

Modeled after working groups like the one Senate President Karen Spilka convened last session to shape the body's early pandemic response, the new committee is chaired by Hinds and includes the Senate chairs of joint committees on housing, racial equity, education, and labor and workforce development.

Hinds said the committee aims "to be reacting in real time around this unique set of challenges that are coming from a need to build back stronger." Its work, he said, will include the chairs of key committees "sitting around the table and working together" to tackle structural and socioeconomic factors.

"The big piece that's shaping my lens through which I'm looking at this is, this has been a catastrophic event and an existential threat to the livelihood and health of millions of Mass. residents, and the impact and the pain has been disproportionately falling on communities of color and low income residents," Hinds said. "So as a policy developer, it's hard not to experience this as the result of a massive policy failure."

One of the committee's starting points will be looking for ways to address vulnerabilities and inequities exposed by the pandemic, he said, and senators also will seek ways to maximize the significant amounts of federal aid Massachusetts is poised to receive and to respond to shifts in the economy, work habits and more.

With so much of life still occurring online — from work to some students' schooling to health care and social services to booking vaccine appointments — gaps in internet access remain a key issue.

Hinds said the pandemic has shown that lack of internet access is not just a rural concern, and that many people in cities lack reliable connections as well. He said bridging the gaps that leave some families unable to work, learn or tend to other needs from home falls into the category of "immediate needs."

At Tuesday's hearing, Hinds said, there will be panelists focusing on issues around internet access, including some who will provide a national perspective.

Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis and one of the scheduled speakers at Tuesday's listening session, said the so-called digital divide also lands at the top of his list for action.

"There's no future that doesn't involve increased reliance on digital tools in the workplace, in education, for telehealth," he said. "It's a question of broadband, it's a question of materials, it's a question of skills. I think there's also a digital workforce training piece that's probably attached to that in the immediate term."

Looking beyond the immediate moment, Horowitz said there also will be a relatively short-term need to deal with "the trauma of the past year."

"I think as we open up, that's going to become more apparent, the degree to which people have been really shaken by this experience," he said. "I know there are a lot of concerns about the kind of near-term behavioral health implications, particularly in light of the fact that ... frontline medical workers, nurses and doctors, have been overtaxed for a year."

Greater prevalence of remote work — including hybrid arrangements where people might come into the office a few days a week and work from home for the remainder — could mean that workers are willing to consider longer commutes, which, over time, could have implications for housing markets, transportation systems and what parents look for in child care.

More remote and hybrid work options could mean that "all of a sudden, Boston has a lot more suburbs," Horowitz said.

"It changes the Boston-not Boston dynamics, which have so defined the economic geography of our state," Horowitz said. "All of a sudden, places west of Worcester change, places south of Quincy."

With the ultimate ramifications of pandemic-inspired shifts in work, housing, education and more still uncertain, Horowitz said policymakers will need to watch data that shows how people are responding — like how commercial real estate prices in Western Massachusetts change compared with those in Boston.