Lessons that Massachusetts’ education systems can take from the coronavirus pandemic will take center stage at the Wednesday hearing of the Senate committee charged with making recommendations for the state’s post-pandemic future.
Panels assembled by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and other lawmakers will explore options to support early education providers and to make child care more affordable for families. The hearing, which will be broadcast on the state Legislature’s website from 1 to 4 p.m., will also cover K-12 education and higher education, as well as a geographic focus on Northeastern Massachusetts.
“The urgency of the moment is one where we really want to be looking at structural change [rather than] incremental shifts,” said Hinds, who chairs the Senate Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts: Post-Pandemic Resiliency.
Most economies do not compensate care work done within households, and several historical and social forces have contributed to the gendering of caregiving as “women’s work.”
When pandemic safety concerns put in-person learning at schools on pause, and with child care still unaffordable for most families, many families sacrificed women’s participation in the formal workforce. More than 2.5 million women left the U.S. workforce over the past year, compared to around 1.8 million men, according to Labor Department data.
Families and child care providers have been “making it work as best we can without the significant public support that’s needed,” said Julie Kashen, a senior fellow and director for women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation, during a Tuesday call with reporters.
Aside from a stint during World War II, when a national child care program sought to support the children of working women, the U.S. generally has not made significant investments in child care infrastructure, she said.
Child care centers have long operated on thin margins due to the necessity of high staff-to-student ratios, and some operated at a loss to stay open when pandemic safety restrictions limited their enrollments. Meanwhile, child care workers in Massachusetts receive a median hourly wage of $14.11 per hour, Kashen said.
A “Common Start” bill proposed in the Legislature would provide care free of cost to lower-income families while putting an additional $600 million of state funding into child care programs over five years.
“I think everybody has a role to play in providing safe, nurturing care,” Kashen said. “Families certainly have some responsibility, [and] the government should have some responsibility. Employers have a stake in this because when a parent doesn’t have reliable child care, they can’t show up for work in the way that they want to.”
The present exodus of women from the workforce could have enduring effects, Kashen said, and even when people return to the workforce, it’s difficult for them to get back on a trajectory to reach higher levels of compensation.
The effect of the pandemic on students, as well as pre-pandemic inequalities, is also driving discussions about how the state can support students.
Greater investment in early college programs can both increase students’ college readiness and help alleviate affordability challenges, said Manny Cruz, advocacy director for Latinos for Education. Salem public schools are exploring the possibility of adding a fifth year for high school students to accumulate more college credits before entering college, Cruz said.
“We firmly believe that if the supports are there our students can succeed, and we want to get them to having two years of college credits under their belt,” Cruz said. “You think about the savings, you think about the confidence, you think about the ways in which they’ll be able to enter into a campus and be college ready.”
Cruz added that another goal is to have colleges and universities be more “student ready,” including through expanding their commitments to supporting students of diverse backgrounds.
Hinds said the committee has continued its work on digital access gaps, which it discussed in its April 6 hearing, and he said that work is “translating into a recommendation in short order.”