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Learning curve

Parenting students silently struggle to balance both their course load and their children's needs amid the pandemic

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Learning curve

Parenting students silently struggle to balance both their course load and their children's needs amid the pandemic

From the minute they woke up, it was a bad day. 

He was kicking, screaming, yelling. He wouldn’t sit still. Every little action to try and assuage his frustration seemed futile. 

She was at her breaking point. 

In an act of desperation, Ellen Kissler, a senior studying computer science, emailed her son’s kindergarten teacher. 

“I don’t know what to do. I’m at the end of my rope. I need help,” Kissler wrote. 

Between her son's temper tantrums, Kissler tried to get him involved in his virtual kindergarten classroom while logging on to her own class in an attempt to make it in time for attendance. 

Her son’s teacher called back in the middle of Kissler’s Zoom class. She turned her video off, went on mute and took the call, bawling into the phone.

The day was especially bad. But bad days aren’t uncommon. 

Kissler has spent the past three years juggling working toward a degree and taking care of her now 5-year-old son. 

As both a parent and a full-time student, Kissler is no stranger to the challenges of balancing both. But this was supposed to be the semester where her son went to all-day kindergarten. This was supposed to be the semester where she’d have more time.

Now both Kissler and her son are attending online school. Kissler supervises her son’s kindergarten class from 8 a.m. until about 11:30 a.m. before starting her own classes in the afternoon. 

“It’s hard to balance everything,” Kissler said. “Where is that line? Where is that line between ‘I need to get my stuff done, but not feel like I’m neglecting (my son) at the same time?’” 

The coronavirus pandemic derailed the lives of many, leaving kindergarteners to doctoral candidates to pursue their studies online and leaving entire households simultaneously navigating multiple e-learning platforms. And ASU students with children are struggling to stay afloat.

Kissler solicited help from other parenting students in a Reddit post in early August, garnering the attention of many who admitted to suffering the same challenges. Some failed classes in the spring semester, others dropped classes in the fall. All knew quite intimately the stress Kissler described. 

ASU does not have a student parent database so those parenting while attending school have to self-identify, but about 12% of students who are enrolled in public, four-year universities are parents according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 

Olivia Rines, a faculty member and doctoral candidate in linguistics and applied linguistics, had their daughter two years ago.

“I gave birth to a baby and I realized there was —” Rines paused as their daughter called for them from the other room. “Yes, I understand you’re hungry. Hold on just a second.” Rines said.

“And I realized that there was no support network or really even visibility for parents who are students on campus. At the time, I felt very alone.” 

Parenting students typically fall under the label "nontraditional" students. Nontraditional students are defined by the National Center for Education Statistics as typically being over the age of 24 and often having “family and work responsibilities as well as other life circumstances that can interfere with successful completion of educational objectives.”

Though those who are nontradtional fall outside the college student archetype, they make up a growing percentage of enrollment in universities.

“You get pushed from being a traditional student to a nontraditional student,” Rines said. “It definitely feels like you’re an outlier.” 

Prior to the pandemic, both Rines and Kissler described a feeling of helplessness. Rines notes that classes are positioned to be the priority for traditional students. 

“That’s not the way it can be with parenting students because obviously our children come first,” Rines said.

Students with children often face time constraints and financial obstacles when pursuing a degree. Striking a balance between childcare, education and work proves challenging, and oftentimes University faculty and administration are not equipped to address the scope of the problem. 

One of the biggest challenges is a lack of affordable and accessible childcare. 

In a survey done by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, 62% of parenting students and 70% of single parent students disagreed with the statement, “I can afford childcare.” 

Though some campuses offer affordable or free childcare, the number of childcare centers available to students on campus steadily decreased in the past decade while the number of students with children increased, according to a report by the Student Parent Success Initiative. 

And aside from facing more obstacles when taking and completing classes, parenting students often face general basic needs insecurity.

“There are many colleges that are still struggling to figure out how to handle situations with students who can’t meet their basic needs, but then add another human being into that equation and it makes even more challenging,” said Marissa Meyers, a practitioner and researcher for the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University.

The same survey found 53% of parenting students were food insecure in the prior 30 days, 68% of parenting students were housing insecure in the previous year and 17% of parenting students were homeless in the previous year.

Meyers notes that those suffering from basic needs insecurity often see a snowball effect when it comes to the challenges they face. 

“At what point does social services come in and say ‘We need to take your child away because you don’t have an adequate living situation;’ and then what are the chances that parenting student is then going to complete the degree?”

This question echoed louder as the pandemic amplified the problems parenting students already faced. 

In March, ASU announced classes would transition online. Shortly after, Gov. Doug Ducey mandated school shutdowns across the state. Though some off-campus preschools and daycares stayed open during the height of the pandemic, some parents were wary of sending their children due to the risk posed by the virus. 

When classes went online, students with children now had to navigate their own virtual classes in addition to their children's schooling. 

“I wasn’t one of the people that all of a sudden had to figure out how to do online school for them,” Kissler said, “But when August came around it was finally hitting home.” 

Kissler failed a calculus class in the spring semester, and she may have to drop one or two more classes this semester to stay afloat.

Other parenting students found themselves in similar, if not identical, situations. The stress of classes intensified as many were now juggling school, work and homeschooling. 

“Every day it feels like a jigsaw puzzle. You’re putting in all your time and all it takes is that one little thing to just set off a whole day,” Kissler said. 

Kissler noted the importance of having people to talk to, something Rines also found incredibly helpful when they first started juggling parenting and school. 

For this same reason, Rines founded the Sun Devil Student-Parent Network, an organization created to connect parenting students and to provide resources on and off campus. 

The group works in conjunction with ASU Family, and connects students with programs like the Child Care Access Means Parents in School and Sun Devil Child Care Subsidy. 

But most importantly, the group wants to provide a strong sense of community.

“We’re just basically trying to make it so that the students don’t feel alone because it is a very lonely experience,” Rines said. 

With 120 people on the network’s email list and 21 members in a new Facebook group, Rines hopes to grow membership in the coming months. 

Kissler said she often feels exhausted and hopeless. But, she got a tip under her Reddit post that she said has made all the difference. Her son’s kindergarten teacher gave her similar advice in the midst of their worst day. 

“At some point, you have to say, this is good enough. It may not be perfect, but it’s good enough,” Kissler said.

Reach the reporter at or follow @kiera_riley on Twitter.

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Kiera RileyMagazine Managing Editor

Kiera Riley is a managing editor at State Press Magazine. She also interns at the politics desk for the Arizona Republic

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