COVID pandemic creates rare opportunity for education reform, experts say

Education advocates and experts told state senators on Wednesday that the disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis presents a unique opportunity to reform aspects of all levels of schooling and encouraged them to act before that moment passes Massachusetts by.

“I think we’re in a very short window of opportunity, about a five-year window of opportunity, to make transformational, high-quality, systematic, sustainable changes in education, and I’m urgent about our following through on that,” Hardin Coleman of the Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development told members of a Senate committee.

The committee, chaired by Pittsfield Sen. Adam Hinds, has been charged with examining ways to address structural problems that the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated. It held a virtual listening session Wednesday focused on issues relating to K-12, early and higher education. Each of those industries faces its own problems, but the issues have all been heightened by more than a year of disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speakers on each of the panels hit on a similar theme: lawmakers must commit to addressing long-standing structural flaws soon, often with additional funding for the industries, or else risk the pandemic’s upheaval settling in as permanent damage.

“If we don’t seize this opportunity, the next time our sector is pushed to the brink, it may be too late,” said Amy O’Leary, director of Strategies for Children’s Early Education for All campaign.

Coleman, who is also a member of the Boston School Committee, encouraged a focus on children’s needs outside the classroom, including housing, health care for families and caregiver employment.

Former state Education Secretary Paul Reville, the founding director of the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said schools can no longer treat students as if they are all the same or as though they had the same experiences during the pandemic. He said the state should not seek to return to its pre-COVID status quo but instead pursue a more holistic, personalized approach.

“We need to break the back of the one-size-fits-all factory model of education that we have in education,” Reville said. “We can’t teach to the average, as any teacher will tell you these days, and the spread — the variety of experience and achievement levels that we now have — has just gotten much wider in the course of the past year, so what I’m prescribing is a success plan for each child. Meet them where they are, give them what they need, start in early childhood, take into account factors inside of school and outside of school.”

Industry advocates called for lawmakers to increase the state’s investment in the early education and child care sector to help reverse the disproportionate economic damage women have borne during the COVID-19 pandemic. Forcing widespread closures and a massive shift in work patterns across the state, the public health crisis pushed both parents and child care providers into a precarious position.

A vast majority of child care providers are women, and mothers have also been hit harder by COVID-19′s impacts because they have left work or cut back hours at greater rates than fathers, the senators were told.

In October, the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women published results from a survey finding that 21 percent of women were considering quitting their jobs because of the challenges that finding child care and education during the pandemic posed, while 45 percent said changes in school and care arrangements had hurt their financial security.

“Our hard-won progress on closing the gender wage gap can be set back decades by this moment with women’s labor force participation still around 1980s levels,” Julie Kashen, director for women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation, said on Wednesday. “The choices made by policymakers have deliberately failed to establish a robust care infrastructure and family-supporting workplace policies in the United States.”

Kashen and industry leaders from the early education and child care sector urged the Senate’s post-pandemic resiliency committee to prioritize substantial reforms of how the state funds child care, with several speakers warning that the existing per-child per-day reimbursement model falls short of addressing needs.

As a result of insufficient support, they said, the industry often fails to offer competitive wages to workers and leaves care unaffordable for many working parents. More than a third of employees in early education qualify for some kind of public assistance because of their low wages, O’Leary said, even though many were designated essential employees during the pandemic. Senate President Karen Spilka last week challenged the business community to help with her idea for a “moonshot” to develop a system of intergenerational care that would support families, particularly women, who have been forced to give up careers to care for family of all ages.

Merrie Najimy, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the state should increase public funding for pre-kindergarten through grade 12 and “make significant investments in higher education to make it more affordable and more accessible to all students, particularly for low-income students and students of color who rely on public universities.”

Najimy also suggested providing grants for systemic professional development on trauma-informed and anti-bias curriculum and practice, diversifying the education workforce, and tracking the physical condition of each school building to put them on a path for “redesigning and rebuilding green new schools.”

“The pandemic simply has laid bare the fact that public education has been shaped by the same systematic, racist and institutional policies that form our society,” she said. “The crisis itself leads us to the greatest opportunity that we have had in this century to transform public education from pre-K all the way up to grade 16 to a truly anti-racist, whole child-oriented system that allows our students to graduate with a college degree free from debt, and only then will our schools meet the Constitution’s charge for public education.”

On the higher education front, the COVID-19 pandemic so far has accelerated an existing decline in enrollment at Massachusetts colleges and universities, further straining their budgets.

Between the fall 2019 semester and the fall 2020 semester, student headcount dropped 11.3 percent at Massachusetts community colleges, 7.7 percent at state colleges and universities, and 0.6 percent in the University of Massachusetts system, according to data presented by Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago.

“As I looked at other states, the declines Massachusetts experienced are among the largest we’ve seen nationally,” Santiago said. “This really creates a significant crisis, not only for the students, but also for our institutions that are very much enrollment-driven.”

State education officials and advocates are hopeful that increased investment in early college programs, which allow students to take college courses and earn credits while still in high school, can help mitigate the worrying trend.

Data show that students who have participated in the early college program so far — many of whom are people of color from lower-income families — are significantly more likely to remain enrolled in a college or university for a second year and beyond compared to their peers, according to Board of Higher Education Chair Chris Gabrieli.

At some schools, officials are weighing how to evolve in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The growing presence of online learning over the past year showed how valuable that can be, North Shore Community College Board of Trustees Chair JD LaRock told senators.

LaRock said community colleges in particular must re-examine which populations they target to counteract declining enrollment.

“This challenge is going to be with us for a long time unless we reconceptualize who our student market is,” LaRock said. “Community colleges have a great shot at doing that, because of all the types of higher education institutes, we already serve the most flexible student market. If we don’t get even more flexible about whom we serve and how we serve them, I think that we will find ourselves hard-pressed to retain solvency as institutions in the long run.”

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