ACROSS AMERICA — Here’s something we know for certain: The coronavirus pandemic has made this fall’s return to school anything but ordinary.
Virtual learning is now the default in most states.
Parents and guardians became teachers overnight, and many had to adapt quickly to ensure their child succeeds this school year. Not all kids have parents in their lives, though. And many parents are unable to stay home.
This is where grandparents like Mercedes Bristol come in. Supervising virtual learning is necessary, yet many grandparents are faced with technology barriers, confusing class schedules and unfamiliar subjects.
Simply put, some grandparents feel perpetually “lost,” according to the 66-year-old grandmother from San Antonio.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat there lost right alongside the children,” Bristol said. “Once, a teacher wanted us to show our kids how to upload homework into Google Docs.
“What if grandparents don’t know how to do that? Some grandparents I know don’t even speak English. How can they even tell what to do? It’s impossible to keep up with what’s happening if they don’t know.”
The State Of Grandfamilies
For grandparents raising grandchildren — often called “grandfamilies” by the organizations that support them — the challenges created by the pandemic are nuanced.
About 2.7 million children in the United States are being raised by grandparents, other relatives or close family friends, with no parents in the home, according to the national advocacy group Generations United. Another 7.9 million kids live in homes where a grandparent is considered the head of the household.
Resources For Grandparents And Grandfamilies
If you are a grandparent and struggling, there are available resources and supports to help you better navigate not only teaching but raising your grandchildren during the pandemic.
Here are a few suggestions from Generations United, AARP and other organizations.
Other resources grandparents may find helpful include:
- Financial assistance: A fact sheet for grandparent and relative caregivers to help access support through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program can be found here.
- Food assistance: Feeding America has information on the different types of food assistance programs they work with and a search tool to find your nearest food bank. Meals on Wheels America also has a tool to find meal providers near you here. You can also contact your eldercare locator eldercare.acl.gov to find out about other sources of food for older adults.
If you’re not sure where to turn, try these resources:
Kinship navigator programs are programs that assist kinship families in accessing resources. Visit www.grandfamilies.org for a list of local programs in your state.
Before the pandemic, the number of grandfamilies was already growing because of the opioid crisis. As a result, many children now living with grandparents have a history of trauma leading to special needs or behavioral difficulties, and many no longer have support such as counseling or occupational therapy available.
Also, about one-fifth of grandparent caregivers live at or below the poverty level, according to Generations United, which works at the national level to enact policies and promote programs designed to help grandfamilies address financial and other challenges.
Meanwhile, grandparents are coping with their own underlying health issues when social distancing for them is next to impossible, according to Donna Butts, executive director with Generations United. Many are older than 60, putting them at higher risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
“Older adults were told to isolate and physically distance themselves from younger people, but if you’re raising grandchildren, you can’t do that,” Butts said. “School was their respite, and now they have the kids 24/7, and it’s been stressful for them.”
As a result, many grandparents are opting to keep grandchildren at home to reduce their own risk of coronavirus exposure.
Generations United plans to release its annual state-of-grandfamilies report at the end of September. This year’s report will focus on how the pandemic has affected various areas of their lives. This includes education.
Until then, the organization doesn’t have specific numbers on how many grandparents are currently supervising their grandchild’s education. Butts, however, said it most certainly involves lots of kids, and the challenges are genuine.
It may come as no surprise that grandparents are struggling with technology the most. Whether it’s a Chromebook or an iPad, Google Classroom or Schoology, grandparents may find it impossible to keep up.
A study in the Journal of the International Society for Gerontechnology, cited by AARP, found that 24 percent of older adults are afraid to use new technology.
Another study done by AARP shows mixed results on how confident grandparents feel in their ability to use technology.
According to the self-assessment, 44 percent say they are tech-savvy, but an equal number say their technology skills are just average. Half of grandfathers report being tech-savvy, giving them a slight edge over grandmothers. Still, both grandmas (39 percent) and grandpas (36 percent) say that keeping up with technology is difficult.
“Some grandparents may be trying to do everything from their phones. Some may not be able to afford internet access, and others have to drive to the library to get kids hooked up,” Butts said.
Mercedes Bristol was given custody of her first grandchild in 2011. A year later, her family expanded again when Child Protective Services placed four other grandchildren in her home.
Bristol was struggling. Raising five children alone, she didn’t know where to turn.
Today, Bristol helps to support and guide grandparents going through scenarios similar to hers. Her work as executive director of the nonprofit Texas Grandparents Raising Grandchildren showed her she’s not alone.
Started by Bristol in 2016, Texas Grandparents Raising Grandchildren began as a single support group. The organization now supports more than 700 grandparents throughout Texas with a dozen support groups that connect them with resources including mental health and legal services, food pantries, utility assistance and more.
Bristol also educates grandparents on how to best advocate for themselves and their families at the state and federal levels.
“I found there are a lot of resources out there for grandparents, but there is no one to connect them,” Bristol said.
Since the pandemic came to the United States, several grandparents with whom Bristol works have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. One grandparent died, she said.
“When COVID hit, it really shut us down,” Bristol said, adding she knows one grandparent raising seven grandchildren on Social Security alone. “Healthwise, we’re very exposed and financially vulnerable. Our biggest fear is if we get sick, who is going to take care of our kids?”
Online learning only adds to the stress felt by grandparents. Juggling class loads for multiple children, communicating with teachers and helping their grandchildren through unfamiliar subjects are all proving challenging.
Bristol — who acknowledges she is among grandparents who can navigate a computer with little assistance — said that while all parents and guardians are dealing with this new education normal, the disconnect is greater for older adults.
“Our kids are running circles around us,” Bristol said, labeling the tools used by schools as a “foreign language” to most grandparents. “How can states or school districts expect grandparents, many of whom still have flip phones, to be capable of checking on children to make sure they are doing the school work?”
After retiring in December 2019, Tina Morgan started a different, impromptu career only months later when she stepped up to supervise online learning for her grandsons, ages 8 and 10.
Morgan, who lives about 30 minutes south of Austin, Texas, continued this for several weeks in the spring and three weeks this fall before the boys returned to in-classroom learning this past week.
While she doesn’t have custody of her grandchildren, Morgan decided to help so her daughter could return to work.
Still, Morgan says it was a tough decision.
“I didn’t go to school to be a teacher. I just want to be Mimi,” the 54-year-old grandmother said. “I want to be the one who spoils them. I don’t want them to not want to come here because they have to do school.”
The most difficult part of online learning, Morgan added, was maneuvering different schedules for each grandson. She also didn’t want her “whole house on camera.”
“I’ve seen too much over the years,” Morgan said. “I’m a very private person.”
Ed Stavola is among the grandparents who’ve sought out resources through Texas Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. Stavola and his wife, Sherri, have been raising two grandchildren for the last three years.
Prior to the pandemic, Stavola’s grandchildren attended school in person. Now, their 16-year-old grandson and 13-year-old granddaughter are both learning at home full time. The Stavolas are also helping a third grandchild through online learning so his mother can work.
The abrupt shift to online learning this past spring proved more challenging than the new year, Stavola said.
“When they shut the schools down in March, there was no plan. There was no kind of consistency,” he added. “This year, the start of school has been a whole different ballgame.”
Since his grandchildren are older, Stavola said they tend to be more self-directed and are capable of navigating their school days with minimal help. The biggest challenge for him comes when the Wi-Fi goes out or Zoom crashes in the middle of class.
“Now you don’t know where to go,” Stavola said. “You start calling the school, but there’s no help, no assistance. Three hours later, you finally get an email.”
Are school districts supporting grandparents through this?
They’re doing the best they can, most agree. In fact, when asked what could be done to ease the burden on grandparents, Bristol said she’s still searching for the right answer to that question.
“We’re just not equipped to handle the way teachers are teaching our children, and there is a lot of frustration that comes with that,” Bristol said. “I don’t know what can make it easier, but providing more support to grandparents and families is a start.”
Tips For Grandparents
While supporting children during remote learning can be daunting, grandparents should remember it’s also an opportunity to share their skills, hobbies and time, education expert and consultant DeLise Bernard told AARP.
When public schools transitioned to online learning in March, Bernard launched a Facebook group called Surviving Homeschool to help answer questions as families found themselves thrust into the role of teacher. Bernard home-schooled three children for almost a decade and wanted to pass along her tips and tricks.
Within two days, the group attracted more than 2,000 members, and now it has more than 7,500.
Rochelle Somerville, a team leader and education consultant for the Home School Legal Defense Association, has spent more than 20 years in public education and 14 years home-schooling her six children.
Like anything you have to invest in, Somerville said, educating children at home will have its challenges. One of the biggest hurdles grandparents must clear is self-doubt and feeling as if they must figure everything out on their own.
“Parents everywhere have self-doubt. We all wish our kids came with an instruction manual,” Somerville said. “The first thing that needs to happen is grandparents need to remember they still have their roles as grandparents. This should be a time of exploring and learning together.”
Use this as a time to build a relationship with grandchildren, Somerville said. Ask teachers if they have textbooks available, then spend time reading the books and digging into the content with your grandchildren.
“When we did this, my kids would see the gaps in my knowledge,” Somerville said. “Those are the key moments where we get to explore it together.”
Another key tip is to outsource help whenever possible. Set up a “learning pod” with other grandparents who are teaching grandchildren. Either online or in person, this allows kids an opportunity to work together and turn to peers for help.
Grandparents should also ask a more tech-savvy family member or friend to install a remote desktop connection to help them navigate unfamiliar school programs and apps on the computer. Examples of these connections are Chrome Remote Desktop, Lite Manager or AnyDesk.
“You have a whole nation doing this online. Some are confident, some are not,” Somerville said. “Be willing to learn and move at a slower pace.
“There is so much support out there,” she added. “You just have to reach out and find the level of support you and your kids need.”
Generations United is also working furiously to help grandparents adapt during the pandemic. To ease the challenges, the organization partnered with Older Adults Technology Services to offer tutoring for grandparents.
Butts said the lessons often tackle some of the biggest challenges beyond technology — the child’s grade level, whether it’s a subject the grandparent knows, and how grandparents were taught the subject themselves.
Regardless of their reason or potential challenges, grandparents know they must step up.
“It’s their grandchild and, in many ways, their legacy, and they very much want to support their grandchildren,” Butts said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not work and can’t be a struggle. There is a necessity, but it is also motivated by love.