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The Pandemic Is Forcing Me -- a Single Mom and Student -- to Choose Between My Kids’ Education and My Own

photo of kelly shanley and family
October 20, 2020
From the WebMD Archives

By Kelly Shanley, as told to Jennifer Clopton

As a single mother, I’ve become accustomed to juggling the responsibilities and demands associated with raising children and maintaining a stable home environment. But the COVID-19 pandemic and this virtual school year have thrown our extremely fragile routine off balance, and the longer it stretches on, the worse it gets.

I am a 32-year-old mother and a college student myself. Prior to the pandemic I also worked while attending school. I have two children: my daughter, Aubrey, is in fourth grade, and my son, Aiden, is in kindergarten. Both attend public school, which is virtual right now. To say it’s been hard is an incredible understatement. My daughter is reasonably self-sufficient in terms of using a laptop for school, but as far as her learning is concerned, she has struggled with all aspects of remote school. She’s only 9 and needs a lot of help, support, and encouragement to navigate all the tech, communication, engagement, and attention span challenges that come with remote schooling.

In addition to isuses such as increased isolation, technology hiccups, and engagement/attention span problems, I faced attempting to help my son as he experienced "school" for the first time. He was diagnosed about 2 years ago with a developmental struggles with the social/emotional areas of daily living. He is one of the sweetest and most intelligent little boys I have ever met, but has a hard time time sitting still or staying focused for any extended period of time and seems to have little to no regard for his own safety.  

The exhaustion caused by my hypervigilance and the mountain of my own college assignments I need to catch up on has only made the addition of his online schooling more difficult. Between navigating the virtual platforms, resolving scheduling conflicts with his therapy services, and teaching a 5-year old how to unmute/mute himself on a Zoom call, Aiden’s education alone has become a full-time job. By the time I’m able to sit down and read through the millions of emails I have to still respond to for my classes, I’m just too exhausted to do so.

I’ve always attempted to put a great deal of effort and energy into my schooling, and up until the start of the pandemic, my grades were nearly perfect. I know that to provide for my family and ensure a brighter future, I need to earn my degree, so I take my education very seriously. When the pandemic first began in the spring, I was able to keep working my job as a work-study employee. Since our whole community -- and the country -- was making the switch to remote work, and with the semester coming to an end, my employer was able to be flexible with my hours. Plus, Aubrey was the only one of my children in school at that point, making it much easier to juggle school and work.

But in May I graduated from the Community College of Denver. I’m currently in my first semester as a junior at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and I’ve been unable to continue working with both of my children home. We’re living in public housing in Denver Colorado Housing. The economic pressures have been a struggle as well.

As a requirement of a full-ride scholarship, I’m currently enrolled in full-time courses (four classes). Without the scholarship I would be unable to afford tuition, so I don’t have the option of reducing the number of classes I’m taking. At this point, even if I managed to find childcare, finding the time to sleep, which is necessary for basic functioning, while working and attempting to keep up with my homework would be nearly impossible.

Knowing we couldn’t continue going the way we were going; I made the incredibly difficult decision to send my daughter to California to stay with my parents. She’s been gone for about a month now (the longest we have ever been apart), and it’s been rough. I miss her and she misses me, but I also know if she had stayed, her education would have continued to suffer. My parents are both currently working remotely, and my mom’s past experience as a substitute teacher combined with the patience she possesses makes her a much better support for Aubrey than I would have been had she remained here.

I’m praying things start to get a bit easier soon. Our district is just starting to bring students back in person, and Aiden just recently began the transition back into the classroom for all-day, in person kindergarten. If all goes well, my daughter and her classmates will follow later this month. That will leave me with an empty house during the day, giving me the time to catch back up in my classes while attempting to salvage my GPA. Even if I manage to do so, I will still be left with apprehension, but I still have on many fronts.

  • The virus: I have had COVID-19 already, and thankfully, my children didn’t get it. I worry slightly about them being exposed while doing in-person learning. I felt like I was dying for several days when I had the virus, and it’s not something I would want them to have to go through.
  • Uncertainty of school year: My son struggles with transition and doesn’t handle changes in his routine well. The rise of cases could cause the reimplementation of virtual learning, and I’m concerned about what that would mean for his learning. While I feel my daughter is now managing to learn and maintain her education virtually, I worry Aiden won’t learn that way.
  • My education: I feel like I have to pick and choose whose education is more important -- my children’s or mine. It’s impossible to be fully engaged in my own virtual learning while trying to keep my son engaged in his own. I’m failing three out of my four classes. As a mother it’s my responsibility to prioritize my children and their needs. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave enough time in the day to prioritize my own education, which threatens to negatively impact our family’s future. 
  • Mental and emotional outlook: My son missed out on months of in-person occupational therapy and interactions with other children, which would have better prepared him for the transition into kindergarten. My daughter misses her friends and is missing out on experiencing things a child her age should be getting to experience, such as various school events, joining choir, and sleepovers with her classmates.

Not being able to be on campus has also caused me to feel extremely disconnected. My campus had been like a second home to me. I went from being involved in various clubs, causes, and activities to feeling like the new kid who transfers to an unfamiliar school in the middle of the year, doesn’t know anyone, and has no time to try and meet them.

How long can I sustain this? I guess that depends on whether or not I can get back on track with my classes. I’m trying, slowly but surely, to catch up now that my son just went back to in-person school. My teachers have been very understanding, and I’ve tried to communicate with them as much as possible. But I am still failing those three classes right now. And with the few times that I have been able to actually spend a chunk of time focused on school, it doesn’t feel like I’m making much progress. It’s like I’m performing triage with a severed main artery. Do I spend my time on the assignment that is already late and losing points, or do I risk causing an upcoming assignment to also be late? All the while, I’ve got teachers emailing me wanting to discuss Aiden, doctors’ appointments to schedule, a house to keep clean, outside obligations, and bills to pay.

Through it all, I know that I am doing the best that I can, and I think -- at the very least -- I’m showing my kids that we keep trying always, even when things get really, really hard. Whatever happens, I know there are lessons I am teaching my kids through all of this -- about determination, perseverance, resilience, and rising above challenges.

I’m sure we’ll all be stronger because of it in the end. We’ve just got to hang on and get through this. I do believe I will somehow figure it all out. It helps to envision what the future might look like for us. I like to imagine what the house might look like with my degree hanging on the wall. Sometimes I even think about watching one (or both) of my children being handed a degree of their own, and I will know that the time, energy, tears, days spent stressing, and nights without sleep were all worth it in the end.

Kelly Shanley lives in Denver, CO, and is studying communications and leadership. She wants to eventually work to help remove barriers for other college students like her.




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