Coronavirus and the economic shutdowns have affected everyone—but it hasn’t impacted everyone equally. Women have been among the hardest hit by the economic fallout from COVID-19, losing nearly 2.2 million jobs between February and November 2020.

The December 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics report had more bad news for women: all of the jobs lost were women’s jobs. Specifically, that December report revealed that while men gained 16,000 jobs, women lost 156,000 jobs.   

Women-owned businesses, which had been on the rise in recent years, have certainly had a rough go during the pandemic as well. In a recent survey, more than half of female small business owners feared they will have to permanently close their businesses. 

One of the reasons women are more likely to be losing work than men is the nature of the jobs women hold: industries like hospitality, restaurants and entertainment, and retail all are heavily female. 

But certainly, there are other contributors.

Most centrally, the closure of schools and child care centers has meant that children must be cared for at home. Unsurprisingly, the brunt of this responsibility has fallen on women, most notably moms. A hospital administrator in Iowa reported experiencing 40% turnover over the past year, much of that turnover fueled by women having to leave the workforce to stay home with kids due to lack of child care.

The impact of this economic disruption is a problem today, but a potential catastrophe for the future. Surveys show that one in four working women currently are considering stepping back from employment because of COVID-19. 

Women who quit their jobs or step back from their careers will have permanently reduced earnings potential. They are less likely to climb the economic ladder and work their way to earning positions as managers or company leaders. Women’s progress in terms of increasing earnings and presence in board rooms and as business leaders may stall.

That’s why policymakers must act now to help mitigate this damage.  

First, public schools around the country should immediately begin offering safe and responsible in-person instruction. This pandemic has exposed how much incentives matter and why parents deserve more control over their children’s education. Public school unions have fought to keep adults in the system paid while schools remain closed to in-person learning, and children—and their parents—suffer the tangible consequences. 

The science and the data show that we can and should safely and responsibly reopen our schools. It’s time we put our kids first, get political incentives and the narrow interests of public sector unions out of the way, and do the right thing by safely returning students to the classroom. This is simply unfair to the millions of families who cannot afford private education. 

The CDC and countless other data, have been clear that schools should re-open, for the good of students’ mental health and educational prospects. 

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds has led the way in successfully passing a bill in the state legislature that would require safe, in-person learning through the state’s public schools. And in the U.S. Senate, lawmakers are taking a stand to provide additional support to schools that continue with in-person learning.   

The CDC—as recently as this week—and countless other data, have been clear that schools should re-open, for the good of students’ mental health and educational prospects. But what about the toll on women in the workforce? The need for moms to be able to resume work is another reason why in-person education cannot be delayed any longer. 

Secondly, child care centers should also be brought back online and policy leaders around the country ought to be reviewing regulations within their states to make it easier for people to open home-based centers. In a rural state like Iowa, this is critical. Some moms are having to drive an hour or more just to find a child care center.

One key solution is providing more resources to licensed child care services in child care deserts through grants to help build, expand, or renovate child care facilities. In addition, we should make sure nonprofit child care centers can utilize the same support opportunities as for-profit centers.

Finally, restaurants, retailers, and other businesses need to be allowed to safely reopen to the public. Vaccinations are a key part of this. Governors and state leaders across the country must continue to work around the clock to provide access to these safe and effective vaccines so that we can get our lives back to some semblance of “normal.”

American women have been hearing a lot of talk about breaking glass ceilings and the concept of women’s empowerment. But now is the time for more than talk.

After living for a year with COVID-19, our country has developed new strategies for prevention, treatments, and living with the virus. It’s time to open our society and allow women to move forward.