Single parents face challenges with virtual learning

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Kelli Shelhorse has good days and bad days. Some days she feels like she has a handle on things. Other days are more stressful and overwhelming.

The mother of two is in charge of everything — cooking, cleaning, paying the bills, putting food on the table, and, more than anything, making sure her daughters are getting through their school day.

Shelhorse is in charge of everything because she’s the only adult in the house. As a single mom, every responsibility falls on her.

She was anxious all summer waiting for Frederick County Public Schools to decide how it was going to operate for the fall semester. When FCPS settled on a virtual model, Shelhorse was relieved despite knowing there would be challenges.

She takes it day by day. The toughest part are her daughters’ differing schedules. Even though they both attend Kemptown Elementary School, they start the school day at different times and have separate breaks and lunches.

“They are just constantly on and off the computer at different times…so trying to manage that and making sure that they’re on when they need to be and that they can find their assignments…I’m just trying to take it one day at a time,” Shelhorse said.

Single parents already have it tough, with a lack of two incomes and a partner to share child care and household responsibilities. The pandemic and introduction of virtual learning this fall has added yet another challenge.

According to census data, one in five Frederick County households in 2017 were single-parent households. Nationally, numbers have been on the rise.

According to a Pew Research study published last year, out of 130 countries and territories analyzed, the United States had the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households, around 23 percent, compared to countries like China, Nigeria and India, all of which have fewer than 6 percent of children living with only one parent.

It’s a struggle known far too well for many parents and children, but Shelhorse knows things could be a lot worse for her. She feels fortunate to be able to work from home and be there when her kids run into issues, unlike Ramont Scott, a single dad of two who is employed as a postal worker.

Scott is considered an essential employee, and both of his parents are deceased.

When FCPS decided to go virtual, Scott had to quickly figure out who was going to take care of his youngest child during the day. Scott’s son is a junior at Frederick High School and is independent, he said, but his daughter is a second-grader at Lincoln Elementary School and needs help with everything from getting online to completing assignments.

Luckily Scott was able to enroll his daughter at the local YMCA where she spends the day doing her school work. It’s still been hard, though. One day, Scott’s daughter had some technical issues and he had to solve it while at work.

“It was just tough because I’m at work and I got to speak to tech support and then I got to relay the message to the YMCA and it’s an ongoing circle. This is just tough,” Scott said.

Scott feels single parents, especially those who are essential workers, were forgotten when plans for schooling were developed both in the county and nationwide.

“No one ever thought about the single parent in this. The postal worker or the nurse or the person at Walmart stocking shelves that can’t work from home…I can’t quit my job,” Scott said. “It was very stressful…I didn’t have a back-up plan, it was always take my kids to my mom or dad’s but that wasn’t an option anymore.”

But he also knows there was never going to be a perfect solution.

“I don’t think there’s a right answer to it…there was never going to be an answer that was going to satisfy everybody,” Scott said.

Lauri Edwards is in a similar situation. The single mom of three children all under the age of 10 works fulltime, inperson at a local veterinary clinic.

She lives with her parents, who offer some support, but the added challenge for Edwards is that her youngest child is a special education student.

Edwards’ son, Gavin, 6, has down syndrome and attends Monocacy Elementary School. Edwards said the spring was a disaster. There was no direction for Gavin’s education, and he ended up hardly doing any schooling.

Additionally, it was hard for his IEP — Individualized Education Plan — goals to be monitored and met.

Virtual learning is hard enough for neurotypical students, Edwards said. For special education students, it’s an added layer.

“For them to be sitting at a computer or an iPad for hours in a day, not understanding that this is school and this is learning, adds an extra dynamic,” Edwards said. “You have to teach them first that this is school, this is how you’re going to learn and they’re not used to that. They’re used to someone being in front of them.”

Luckily, Gavin was chosen to attend small-group, in-person learning sessions this semester that are occurring across the county. It has been a life-changer, Edwards said.

“He came home ear to ear smiling…and when it was time to get on for online learning, he was a little more apt to do it,” she said.

Edwards did say, that if not for the support of her parents, and for the option to send Gavin to school a few days a week, her family would be in a much different situation.

“If I didn’t have help, I wouldn’t be able to go to work because I don’t — at this point — feel comfortable sending them to a day care. One of the only reasons I’m comfortable sending Gavin to school is because I got him medically cleared…and I learned all the safety protocols,” Edwards said. “If I didn’t have the support system I have, my kids would be falling behind.”

Edwards agreed with Scott and said she feels the school system hasn’t done quite enough to address the unique positions single parents have found themselves in.

“I don’t think single parents have it very easy right now. They want their kids to learn…but the reality is food still needs to be on the table and clothes still need to be on your shoulders…you are the sole provider,” Edwards said.

Kathleen Mooney, a single mom of twins who attend Sugarloaf Elementary School, agreed.

“I really have to keep all the balls in the air right now because I don’t want to lose my job because that would put us in a really perilous position…it’s this weird pressure you put on yourself,” she said.

After a tough end to the last school year, Mooney asked her children’s school principal to place her twins in the same class for the 2020-2021 school year. Her request was accepted and now she only has to worry about one curriculum and one set of schedules.

But that doesn’t mean everything is smooth sailing. Her twins are very different learners, she said.

Her son, who has ADHD, has to be monitored more closely, and Mooney often finds herself playing catch-up with him in the evenings or over the weekends.

For single parents, the list of tasks and needs never seem to end, and each seems to have their own unique set of difficulties or hurdles.

“Everything is on you. You don’t have another person there to pick up and take over when you’re feeling exhausted and need a moment or a break,” Shelhorse said. “It’s the virtual learning piece and just all the household responsibilities. You are responsible for everything.”

Even though it’s tough, she said she knows in the end it will only make her and her girls more resilient.

“(We) have been through some tough times but what is happening today is certainly testing our strength…we will continue to smile and think positively on the good days and cry and hold each other’s hands on the hard days,” Shelhorse said. “I know we will get through this together ,and we will be stronger than ever.”

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