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Student parents are hit doubly hard by coronavirus

This has been a nerve-racking time for Chelsea Callender.

The 22-year-old junior at Bowie State University in Maryland had to switch her 3-year-old daughter from a childcare center to an in-home daycare last week, after the childcare center closed down due to concerns around the coronavirus. She was in the process of moving from one job to another when her old job shut down and left her without her last week of pay. The job she was planning to move to — teaching children how to swim — is also now shut down due to the coronavirus.

She’s now relying on a second, part-time job teaching children about art. Her job hasn’t yet been shut down but is giving out fewer hours because people are canceling appointments.

Meanwhile, Callender had been planning to take classes in the summer after taking this semester off to work through financial aid issues and work extra hours. She ne to turn in a financial aid appeal in May and doesn’t know whether someone will be there to approve it.

On top of all of that, Callender is asthmatic, so she’s worried about catching the coronavirus and becoming sick with COVID-19.

Callender isn’t unique in all of this. About one-quarter of today‘s college students are also parents, and they’ve been hit with a double whammy by this pandemic.

“They were already vulnerable to begin with,” said Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, study director at the Institute for Women‘s Policy Research. “Their economic insecurity was already pretty stark.”

About nine in 10 single mothers live in poverty or with low incomes, according to Reichlin Cruse. Not only are they possibly losing their jobs in the economic crisis, they’re also losing their childcare and community or college resources. And they’re being asked to suddenly take courses online while also helping their children learn online.

The uncertainty of what will happen in the long term is one of the scariest things for student parents, said Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder and CEO of Generation Hope, a nonprofit organization in the D.C. metro area that focuses on college completion and success for student parents and their children.

“When campuses open back up, what will that look like? Will things return to normal?” she said. “Are we going to lose some students in the course of transition to online learning because of the lack of technology and childcare?”

Students in Generation Hope’s program often deal with several issues at once, from work and childcare to housing and food insecurity, domestic violence situations and mental health problems.

“The coronavirus is now a crisis on top of so many other challenges,” Lewis said.

At Montgomery College, in Maryland, faculty and staff members are taking several steps to support vulnerable students, including those who are parents, said DeRionne Pollard, president of the college.

The college has dedicated $550,000 from its operating funds and philanthropy to provide emergency support to students, as the requests for aid increase, Pollard said. Students who need it are also getting stipends to secure access to technology — whether that’s buying a laptop or getting Wi-Fi — so they can continue taking classes online.

Another priority is information, Pollard said.

“In a crisis, many people don’t know how to get access to the things that they need,” she said. “They simply are trying to get through the day to day.”

So Montgomery is taking on the role of information provider by compiling materials on its website, including a special section for student parents about how to take care of their children during this time.

The college is also planning for the future. Every day, there’s a task-force meeting, Pollard said. Currently, they’re looking at what to do for the summer and fall sessions. The first of the college‘s two summer sessions will just be online.

“It would be really foolhardy for us to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to be done with this in May,'” she said.

Staff are also putting in time with faculty to help them understand what resources there are for students, as well as asking instructional developers to work with them on teaching online.

Trinity Washington University is seeing some of the same issues with its students, especially with the need for access to computers, according to Patricia McGuire, president of the university.

“Right now, it feels like a snowstorm where people are staying [home],” McGuire said. “My feeling is that next week, demand will go up.”

The main goal right now is to try to keep stress levels low, she said. To help students succeed, Trinity might need to elongate the semester, use pass/fail options or let student take incompletes with no penalty.

“Academically, while we want to focus on still having quality and rigor, we want to be as flexible as possible so that no one is penalized because of this extremely bizarre situation,” McGuire said.

Cuyamaca College, a two-year college in the San Diego area, is just returning from spring break and trying to assess what students need, according to Sheryl Ashley, the CalWORKS program coordinator for the college.

All the students in the CalWORKS program are low-income parents who receive services from the county in exchange for meeting required participation hours, either through working or going to school.

College staff know these students will likely need help getting computers and internet access to continue their courses online, and Ashley hopes the county will provide that. Her staff of six counselors is surveying and calling the 400 or so students in the program to determine their other ne.

While the college is loosening some requirements and penalties, students still have to comply with financial aid requirements. They also have to turn in their required participation hours to the county, which they used to submit to Ashley’s office and now have to do at home while also taking care of their children and dealing with financial losses.

“I’m just afraid that we’re going to lose students, especially with our population,” Ashley said. “This is an added layer of stress on low-income students that they don’t need.”

Thinking about how all of the pieces of students‘ lives fit together is what institutions need to be doing, according to Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates.

“We’re asking these people to really juggle a lot of things all at once,” she said. “The communication that’s needed between a student and their institution to support them in this time is critical.”