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'It's a lot to juggle': Many college students with children are overwhelmed this school year

In an August 12, 2020 photo, Krista Steffens hugs her two children after graduating from a Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College welding program, where she earned a certificate in welding.

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By DANIELLE DOUGLAS-GABRIEL | The Washington Post | Published: September 28, 2020

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By 7:45 a.m., A'Ja Ross, 26, helps her son, Ti'Andre Williams, log in to his fourth-grade class at Perrywood Elementary School in Largo, Md. She stays close by in case he has any trouble understanding an assignment.

Between his reading, math and science classes, Ross carves out time for her own homework from the five courses she's taking at Prince George's Community College. When the school day ends at 2 p.m. for her son, Ross dives right back into her assignments before starting work in the advising office of the community college at 4 p.m.

Work ends at 8 p.m. Then comes dinner. Then bedtime. Then exhaustion.

"It's a lot to juggle," Ross said. "Most of my professors put up all of their assignments for the semester. And since I have so much going on at home, I work ahead on weekends just in case I have to pull away to help my son."

This is a school year like no other. The demands of remote learning and the lingering threat of the novel coronavirus has placed tremendous stress on college students across the country. But for those who are juggling their studies with helping their school-aged children navigate virtual classes, this semester can be overwhelming.

Colleges and universities have long struggled to meet the needs of the estimated 4.3 million undergraduates, — about one in five — with children. Few have policies and facilities to support student parents and even those that do often find their resources stretched thin.

Advocates say schools and policymakers must prioritize this vulnerable population as the pandemic has laid bare the precarious nature of pursuing a degree while raising a family.

"What people aren't understanding about student parents is that they had so much intersectionality prior to covid-19 — housing insecurity, being front-line workers, having school-aged children," said Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder of Generation Hope, a Washington D.C. nonprofit that helps teen parents earn college degrees. "And with the pandemic, there are layers upon layers of difficulty that are not being talked about and addressed."

Many college students with children were teetering on the edge of poverty before the pandemic, working low-wage jobs while taking classes, according to the nonprofit Institute for Women's Policy Research. Now, they are facing greater financial strain as the economic downturn unleashed by the coronavirus has given rise to layoffs, furloughs and reduced work hours. The institute found that many student parents also have limited broadband access and inadequate technology to meet the demands of remote learning.

When the coronavirus forced schools to pivot online in the spring, Ross didn't have Internet at the transitional housing where she lives in Hyattsville, Md. She often had to use her cellphone to complete homework assignments. But so far, there have been fewer hiccups since she moved to another apartment within the complex with broadband access.

"The first week was hectic, with the technical difficulties my son's school had and the technical difficulties on our end," Ross said. "I just want to make sure we can both stay on top of everything, but it can be frustrating."

At Everett Community College near Seattle, President Daria J. Willis turned the school parking lot into a WiFi hotspot to give students a safe, reliable way to access the Internet. But she is also working to reopen a computer lab for students who don't have laptops or who would rather not keep their kids cooped up in a car for hours on end.

Everett students with children are given priority access to Chromebooks the college has purchased in the wake of the pandemic. Staff at the college routinely reach out to them, while teachers at the on-campus child care center host arts and crafts sessions over Zoom for the children. Having completed a bachelor's degree with her daughter in tow, Willis knows how isolating being a parent on a college campus can be.

"When you come up through a system that made you virtually invisible because you had a baby at 19, you want to give back and make sure other students have a much better experience than you did," Willis said. "I know that if it's hard for me at home with three kids right now, it's much more difficult for our students."

Creating a community for student parents is among a series of steps Generation Hope, the D.C. nonprofit, encourages colleges and universities to take to prevent the population from slipping through the cracks this school year. Other steps include increasing emergency grant aid, providing virtual support for children and offering asynchronous classes that allow students to watch recorded lectures at times that fit their own schedules.

Erin Palmer, 36, said she pleaded unsuccessfully with her professors at the University of Utah for flexibility in attending Zoom meetings that conflict with her 7-year-old's virtual classes. A doctoral student in the Doctors of Nursing Practice program, Palmer needs one year to complete her degree. But the single mother also needs to help her daughter make it through an unconventional school year.

"I'm being told that I have to make arrangements for her because I can't be distracted and I need to be involved and engaged," Palmer said. "It feels like I have to make a choice between finishing my program and being a parent."

Palmer works nights and some weekends as an emergency room nurse. And even with a team of family and neighbors to help with her daughter, balancing work, school and being a parent is especially exhausting this semester.

"Trying to juggle the responsibilities of my own studies with my daughter's, you just feel like you're doing barely enough to get by," Palmer said. "I don't have enough energy to be engaged with what I'm studying, so I feel behind."

There have been a few times since classes began that Palmer has considered taking a leave of absence. But she is so close and has worked so hard after years of waiting to return to school. Palmer had hoped that the kindness and understanding her professors showed in the spring would continue in the fall, but all of that goodwill seems to have disappeared, she said.

Marla J. De Jong, dean of the college of nursing at the University of Utah, said faculty are trying to provide accommodations where possible and encourages students to reach out to her or their academic adviser with concerns. The university has a child-care center on campus that also provides support to students trying to balance the demands of parenting and college, she said.

Karen Gerlach, vice president for student affairs at Trinity Washington University in D.C., has on occasion reached out to professors at the Roman Catholic women's school on behalf of students with children. Some students, she said, are uncomfortable making faculty aware of the challenges they're facing, but keeping everyone in the loop can help.

"The pandemic is giving us this opportunity for a lot of faculty and staff to put themselves in the shoes of student parents who are juggling these things," Gerlach said. "It's a good thing for everyone to be more aware."

Trinity has built out its support network — food pantry, emergency grants, social service advising — based, in part, on student recommendations. The university conducted a recent survey of students and discovered that 50% of the 165 respondents were balancing coursework with child care.

Ross counts herself lucky to have a mother and sister willing to take her son when she needs a break. She credits her mentor at Generation Hope with helping her stay grounded.

When this semester ends, Ross will have an associate degree in hand and become the first in her family to earn that credential. She has set her sights on Bowie State University to get a bachelor's in business management.