I work in the field of adult education, overseeing a program that offers Adult Basic Education, Adult High School, and an ESL program. The majority of my students are Hispanic/Latina and African American women between the ages of 34 and 45. They work, take care of their children, and many of them care for elderly parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Since my program, like most, moved to an online format once the pandemic hit, there has been a drop in enrollment. Not only that, but many of the students who are starting to enroll now are new students, not returning students. When I met with my staff, we were all able to get a fuller picture of why our prior students were not returning, along with some of the challenges of our newly enrolled students:
- Non-returning students were choosing to take on additional work wherever they could get it. Because that student, or someone else in the family, lost their previous job during the pandemic, it became necessary to take on any work that could be found. Many of my students are now work two to three part-time jobs to make ends meet.
- Other non-returning students who lost work simply could not focus on getting their education. It’s well known that gaining a degree equals a pay increase and more opportunities, but no one factored in mental health issues as a result of job loss AND a pandemic. Simply put, some students are too depressed during the pandemic (especially if they are out of work) to put energy into their education.
- The other reason was childcare. Many K-12 schools are remote right now, which means that someone needs to be home to care for the children. This means that many of my female students either left work or cut their hours to stay home. For schools that are open for certain grades, many of my students are too scared of the pandemic to send their children back to school. For those families without healthcare or enough funds to cover doctor visits, sending children back to school is too big of a risk for them.
- Finally, the other part is another childcare problem: Costs. Childcare facilities are already expensive, but finding a quality and affordable program that takes multiple children so that they can work remotely is practically impossible.
For new students, the situation is no different, and they’re hanging on by a thread. Many of them entered the program not realizing how much work was required. While we’re (my staff and I) able to catch them and encourage them before they drop out, they are facing the same obstacles as my non-returning students. The problem (to put it simply) is not the education. It’s everything else that makes their educational goals another straw that can’t be handled right now. I really began thinking of challenges when reading the latest report by IWPR. Overall, the report discusses the economic issues for women during the pandemic and outlines ways that state and federal government can make economic recovery quicker for women and families, thereby benefiting the country, as a whole. Here are some of the highlights:
- Top workforce sectors for women that were affected by the pandemic are education, hospitality and leisure, healthcare, and service.
- Since March 2020, 57 million Americans sought unemployment assistance. From Feb.-May of 2020, 11.5 million women lost their jobs compared to 9 million men.
- Between August and September 2020, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor market, four times the number of men (BLS 2020d).
- One of the main barriers for women returning to work (aside from lower wages than men) is finding quality, affordable childcare.
As I continued to read the report, I realized that the issues presented are the exact ones that I’m seeing with my newly enrolled and non-returning students. While my college and other institutions of higher education have taken on the challenge of partnering with their communities to help students achieve their educational goals, we have all learned that education is impacted by what’s happening the rest of the student’s life. That has to be cared for as well.
It’s true that higher education needs to think broadly in terms of holistic student success, but society also needs a RETHINK button. Education is a right. High quality, affordable, and educationally focused childcare should no longer solely be for those who can afford it. IWPR calls is a “public good,” and more people are seeing it as such when the benefits of childcare are weighed. Wages also need to be equal across racial and gender lines. Childcare workers (mostly women) should receive higher wages, and family leave time should also be re-evaluated.
The pandemic shined a bright light on the issues plaguing us. While it has always been known that healthcare costs, childcare situations, wage differences, and family leave policies were problematic, we are in a time where great changes can be made. While IWPR is a national report, we can all work for fairness and equity. That starts with the things that we do every day, which brought me to following question (challenge): What policies and practices do you currently implement that needs changing in order to bring forth fairness and equity?
Keep leading and stay safe,