Before the coronavirus, Katie Self’s days followed a predictable routine.
At 5 a.m., she woke up her three children and got them ready for school.
By 7 a.m., Self was hitting the books at Fresno City College, where she was studying to be a radiology technician. Classes and tutoring wrapped up just in time for her to do homework, clean the house and get dinner ready before picking her kids up from day care at 5 p.m. Rinse, repeat.
But the pandemic upended Self’s careful planning as the single parent took on a new responsibility: managing her children’s education at home. Her 5-year-old son, Charley, has autism and 9-year-old Carson has attention deficit disorder, so both need extra help.
“It’s like constantly trying to redirect them,” she said. “Trying to get them to focus on their schoolwork, trying to focus on my schoolwork.” Her days, she said, have become a hectic blur.
As both K-12 schools and colleges move to remote learning because of the coronavirus, many families now have more than one generation home schooling under the same roof. Advocates for students with children say they need extra support from colleges and universities, or they’ll fall behind in their education.
About one in five undergraduate students in California are parents, according to a 2019 report by the Institution for Women’s Policy Research. Parenting students pay more to attend college than students without children, due to food and childcare costs. Last year, the state of California began setting aside more financial aid for student parents, who can now qualify for grants of up to $6,000 per year to help with living expenses.
Some colleges and universities have parenting centers where students can seek advice and find out about resources for parents on their campus. Since UC Berkeley stopped holding in-person classes this spring, the campus’s Student Parent Center has been doing Zoom check-ins with parenting students to see what kind of help they might need with academics, financial aid or housing, said staff member Benedicto Vega. The center also set up a food pantry at University Village, a housing development for students with families.
But not all campuses have such extensive assistance for student parents, and other support has dried up during the pandemic. Self, who describes herself as a face-to-face, hands-on learner, said she depended heavily on in-person tutoring sessions for an anatomy class that’s required for her major. With those canceled, it can be hard to retain information she learns online. She’s considering dropping the class and taking it again when campus reopens.
“That puts me back a year,” she said. “That’s a lot of time to lose.”
Fresno State women’s studies professor Larissa Mercado-López has created a guide aimed at helping her fellow faculty members support students like Self during the pandemic.
Mercado-López was inspired to create the guide after a recent webinar where the Fresno State provost addressed faculty questions about the university’s response to COVID-19.
“I noticed several questions from faculty asking, ‘How do we work with student parents who are already overwhelmed?’” recalled Mercado-Lopez, who has surveyed student parents in the past about their needs.
The guide recommends giving students the choice to turn off their microphones and cameras during Zoom sessions, being flexible with attendance and due dates and drawing attention to the resources Fresno State provides that are still available to students — like the student cupboard, which has free diapers.
“I’m hoping that faculty look at the recommendations and reflect on their own policies, and really think about how this current moment is forcing everyone to … shift around their priorities,” she said.
“I always firmly believed that when we center student parents in our classroom policies, that we also benefit other marginalized students as well.”
At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, graduate student Ashlee Hernandez campaigned for more than a year for the academic senate to pass a resolution updating the university’s attendance policy so that student parents can be excused from class for extenuating circumstances, including caring for children.
The resolution was passed just before schools closed, and Hernandez, who is also a parent, said the timing was perfect.
“Right now an extenuating circumstance is that all parents right now have their kids at home,” Hernandez said. “Well now, thanks to this resolution, it’s an excused absence.”
That kind of policy could have helped Amanda Reyes, another Fresno City College student parent who became a child development major because of her admiration for the teachers who helped her eldest son with his speech delay.
Reyes wants to provide the same resources for other children and families, and had planned on transferring to Fresno State this fall. Those plans could be on hold now that she’s dropped two classes from her full-time course load.
In one of them, Reyes said, the professor made it mandatory for students to be present for the two-hour Zoom lecture, or their grade would drop. But the lecture started around the same time Reyes needed to get her kids ready for their own Zoom session.
“My kids are my priority,” Reyes said. She wants to make sure her children are getting the education they need, she said, so that they don’t fall behind.
“If it means that I have to retake another semester, so be it. But I think there’s just too much pressure on me right now, and it’s hard.”
* Adria Watson is a fellow with CalMatters’ College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.