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Balancing act: College students with children face challenges this school year, as most K-12 schools remain closed 

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To Christina Nystrom, a "day off" is a day where she can focus solely on her full-time job.

In addition to working full time as a scheduling analyst in Cal Poly's Office of the Registrar, Nystrom is starting her second year of grad school at Cal Poly, where she's on her way to getting a master's degree in public policy. Nystrom's work and school schedules abruptly moved almost entirely online in March, when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his first stay-at-home order, and her new schedule took some getting used to.

Fortunately, Nystrom said her son's preschool was one of the few in SLO County that stayed open for COVID-19 compliant, in-person care through the spring and summer. Even though he only attended three days a week, Nystrom said the program helped immensely.

"Spring was tough with everything online," Nystrom said. "It felt a little overwhelming, to be honest. If our son had been in school at that time, I would have cried more."

But in August, Nystrom's 5-year-old son started kindergarten at Pacheco Elementary School, where he'll be learning entirely at home, too. His schooling has already proven to require pretty constant attention and coordination.

click to enlarge PRIORITIES To Ashlee Hernandez (pictured), a coordinator of Cal Poly's Parent and Family Programs, enabling the success of college students with children is personal. - PHOTO COURTESY OF ASHLEE HERNANDEZ
  • Photo Courtesy Of Ashlee Hernandez
  • PRIORITIES To Ashlee Hernandez (pictured), a coordinator of Cal Poly's Parent and Family Programs, enabling the success of college students with children is personal.

Nystrom and her husband sit down every night and plan out the following day hour by hour—who has to be in which Zoom meetings when, and who will be in charge of helping their son navigate which parts of the school day. She wakes up at about 4:30 a.m. every day—that's the only way she can get some time to herself to exercise and get work done without distractions—and then she gets her son up and ready for school, leads him through his morning Zoom meetings, and starts her own day of work after that.

To get at least some days of the week to focus completely on work, Nystrom and her husband rotate caretaking duties with another family, so that every other day her son is at the other family's house working on school with their child. Both families' kids were also accepted into San Luis Obispo's city COVID day care program, where their kids go during the afternoon.

But Nystrom talked to New Times before Cal Poly's fall classes started on Sept. 14, and even with the day care program, she wasn't sure what this school year would look like for her.

"I'm super nervous about classes starting," she said.

It's estimated that a little more than 100 students enrolled this year at Cal Poly and even more at Cuesta College have children. In a normal year, raising a family while juggling work and college is challenging. This year, with most of SLO County's young kids learning from home and in need of some kind of support, working toward a degree as a parent is a much more daunting a feat.

National research indicates that about 26 percent of all undergraduate students have dependents, according to Cal Poly, and while student parents earn higher grades on average than traditional students, student parents drop out of school at much higher rates. There are concerns that COVID-19 hardships could lead to worsening retention for student parents.

But Ashlee Hernandez, a coordinator of Cal Poly's Parent and Family Programs, said students with dependents are some of the most resilient and dedicated there are. Hernandez said that with a little support and flexibility from the Cal Poly community, she's confident these students will get through this year.

"The main concern is time constraints," Hernandez told New Times. "There is not enough time in the day to care for your child, their educational needs, and balance [your] own financial and educational responsibilities."

Parents will pretty much be stuck at home until schools reopen for in-person instruction, and those with young children or kids with special needs have to help their children work or attend classes in some way throughout the week. That means less time for work and college.

At Cal Poly, Hernandez said student parents who opt in to the school's Students with Dependents Initiative can obtain support services on and off campus.

Through Parent and Family Programs, Hernandez said Cal Poly offers counseling and advising, access to parking permits, financial aid, connections with other student parents, and early registration to students with children so they have access to courses that fit into their schedules.

In April, Parent and Family Programs staff pushed the university to pass a resolution that allows student parents to make up classwork missed while a dependent is sick, injured, or in other extenuating circumstances. Previously, a Cal Poly student with a child would have had to provide a professor with a doctor's note from a hospital visit for such an absence to be excused.

Cal Poly's child care and preschool programs will also be up and running for modified in-person instruction this fall. The Orfalea Family and ASI Children's Center offers early care and education to kids ages 4 months to 6 years, and is open to Cal Poly students, staff, and faculty.

The center, according to Tonya Iversen, director of ASI Children's Programs, has been open since July. It's operating at half capacity and with a number of extensive COVID-19 prevention measures in place. Children and staff are adapting, but Iversen said it's a particularly difficult time for the early childhood education business. Those in the industry already have "razor-thin margins," she said, and now with reduced income and increased costs due to safety requirements, the Children's Center is doing all it can just to stay in business, even though it has an extensive waitlist for enrollment.

Cuesta's Children's Center and Lab School is also open for the fall semester at both its San Luis Obispo and North County campuses, and according to Center Director Katie Mervin, it too is fully enrolled under the current COVID-19 restrictions. About 58 percent of those enrolled are the children of Cuesta students, according to Mervin.

Other programs can also help relieve the scheduling pressures strained by COVID-19.

Camri Wilson is studying criminal justice at Cuesta College and has four kids—a 10-year-old, a 9-year-old, a stepson in kindergarten, and a 9-month-old. Those who are old enough to attend school are all learning from home right now.

It's a lot to coordinate, and Wilson said she wakes up earlier than she did pre-COVID-19, but her family is adjusting well. Although the after-school program her children used to attend is closed now, her older kids are pretty adept with technology and can handle most of their work alone. With Wilson's classes at Cuesta being online too, she said her schedule is more flexible than usual.

And thanks to the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKS) program, Wilson doesn't have to work. Wilson is a domestic abuse survivor, and she left her former relationship with her kids and not much else. She was homeless when a social worker encouraged her to apply for the CalWORKS program, which provides recipients with financial assistance, help with child care, and other services they might need in order to obtain a job or college degree.

Without that program, Wilson said, she's not sure where she'd be. Still, Wilson has other long-term concerns for her children.

"I am worried when it comes to my kids getting a better education," she said. "It's more hands-on in the classroom and being with classmates, I feel like they're missing out on that. That's what I worry about. The hands-on learning experience. I don't see that happening in the near future." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.

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