Child care, distant family add to challenges of remote learning for Delaware military families

Emily Lytle
Dover Post

Amanda Morgan works the night shift as a nurse at Dover's Bayhealth Hospital. Her husband is active duty at Dover Air Force Base.

That tight schedule leaves little time to sit with their 8-year-old daughter for online learning – and Morgan said her daughter has been having anxiety attacks at night from the stress.

“With my husband getting off late and transitioning into the night shift, we only have a couple hours at night to sit down with her,” Morgan said. “We don’t have time to listen to all five hours of lectures.”

Several parents at Dover Air Force Base said military families are often familiar with the challenges of two working parents and changing schedules, but this season of remote learning has been especially difficult. From technology challenges to a lack of nearby family support, parents say the coronavirus pandemic and virtual learning has stretched limited resources even thinner for working parents and military families – and they need more support.

Caitlyn Brewer, child and youth program specialist, sits with students as they share a computer to continue their online learning while at Dover Air Force Base’s youth center. Temporary connectivity problems have prevented the students from using individual computers.

Jessica Salter commutes to Wilmington as a police dispatcher, and her husband works with the military police on base. She said she is fortunate because her two teenagers can work independently from home, but she understands how hard it is for some of her neighbors.

“You have to decide: your children’s education or your second income, and some of those families need that second income especially after COVID hit,” Salter said. “They don’t know how they’re able to do it. They're struggling. They're going into debt. It’s tapping an already tapped source.”

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Youth center adapts

Dover Air Force Base typically offers before- and after-school programs at the youth center, which is associated with the Delaware Boys and Girls Club. Since the pandemic started, the center has shifted to a full-day schedule from 6:15 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. to support students during remote learning.

Laurie Sisk, school liaison officer for Dover Air Force Base child and youth education services, said the center helps students access their Chromebooks and troubleshoot technology problems.

Program assistants work directly with the children in classrooms, and students wear masks and follow public health guidelines, which Sisk said will help them feel prepared when they return to school buildings. 

“[These programs] offer their parents peace of mind knowing that there are activities that their children can be doing, they’re supervised, they're being cared for," Sisk said. "That military member can now focus on the mission. We’re all a family, and we help each other.”

Students have been wearing masks while at the Dover Air Force Base youth center since April. Laurie Sisk, school liaison officer for Dover Air Force Base child and youth education services, said this will help the students prepare for eventual in-person learning.

The number of students attending the program for school-age children has slightly increased, Sisk said, reaching about 40 students per day. With all these students trying to access the Wi-Fi at the same time though, the center has faced issues getting everyone connected, she said. 

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While Sisk said the youth center is “actively working" with their internet provider to resolve this issue, groups of students have been huddling around a single Chromebook and sharing lessons as a temporary solution.

Since students cannot take tests while sharing a computer, teachers or administrators, like George S. Welch Principal Jason Payne, have proctored pencil-and-paper tests at the center. 

The challenges have left parents like Morgan worried about how much her daughter is learning while at the youth center three days a week, especially with ongoing connectivity issues.

“She’s continually frustrated. She’s constantly distracted. There’s kids bouncing off the walls everywhere. There’s no sense of normalcy,” Morgan said. “When is my child going to get a chance those three days a week to learn what she should be learning if I was a stay-at-home parent?”

Military families with special needs

The sense of constant change that revolves around remote learning can be even more detrimental for students with special needs, said Tesha Jackson, a respite care provider and military mom of four. 

Jackson works with the Exceptional Family Member Program, visiting homes and supporting Dover Air Force Base families that have children with special needs. Several families have multiple children with different schedules, including lunch breaks, she said. 

“A lot of these kids, they need consistency,” she said. “You need to keep it normal and consistent. Don’t change it up on the children because it’s not helping them at all.”

One student she visits, who is nonverbal and on the autism spectrum, doesn’t like to sit in front of a computer, so she brings him a wiggle board to use during online learning.

Jackson has kids in three different schools in Caesar Rodney School District, and she said they seem to be managing OK, but “my special needs families … oh my goodness, their schedules are just crazy.”

As Caesar Rodney School District plans to launch a hybrid, or partially in-person, model beginning Oct. 19, Jackson suggested schools reach out to students to explain the changes. She said if the district could put together a video showing what school will look like, students – especially those with disabilities – can better prepare.

“Seeing it is going to be better for the children who have a hard time comprehending, reading or listening,” she said. 

Other parents, like Jessica Salter, said they are worried that their students with special needs may fall behind. Salter's 13-year-old child is “twice exceptional,” she said, meaning he is gifted and has a learning disability.

She worked with her son and his school to get him into advanced classes, but now his participation depends on his ability to use a Chromebook that she said often doesn’t work well. Salter said she is terrified he will be forced to drop out of those classes because of a technology problem. 

“With my being a first responder and my husband being active duty, I can’t be on the computer with them every day to make sure it's working,” she said. 

Principal Payne said Welch Elementary has a case manager who is reaching out to families, and any student with special needs who receives related services can come into the school buildings for those services. 

No ‘backup system’

When going through a crisis or hard time, it’s natural to lean on family for support, but for military families, that’s not always an option.

“We’re just like every other family, just trying to make it,” Salter said. “The only thing is we don’t have grandparents nearby. We don’t have aunts and uncles nearby.”

A scene at the Dover Air Force Base youth center where staff members support students as they continue online learning. The center typically offers before and after-school services, but it has switched to full-day hours to support the children during remote learning.

She said her closest family lives nine hours away, and her husband’s family is in Alaska.

“It’s not like we have a backup system here,” she said. 

Jaci Porto knows what that's like. Her family just moved to Dover Air Force Base this June after living with her family in Minnesota during her husband's deployment. Now, she has one aunt who lives four hours away, but everyone else is still in Minnesota.

After her son's first day at virtual kindergarten with Welch, Porto was immediately opposed to remote learning.

"He couldn’t focus or sit still for the entire Zoom period," she said. "The kids don’t know how to work the computers well, they don’t understand the teacher’s directions always, and they just need to play."

The next day, she enrolled her son at Academy of Dover Charter School, where students are meeting in-person five days a week. 

"One of my biggest frustrations with COVID and Caesar Rodney keeping schools shut is that they know we are a military base and their schools have military kids," Porto said. 

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She agreed with Salter that military families need to create their own community of support on base. Porto has offered to help her neighbors with remote learning while they work, but she still finds the process frustrating. 

“You shouldn’t have to rely on strangers to watch your children just so they can go to school,” she said.

New home, new learning style

Military families are generally used to schedules and life plans changing at a moment's notice, but five military mothers interviewed said remote learning has been added stress.

As a nurse whose job was deemed essential at the start of the pandemic, Morgan said remote learning has added to her load.

“On top of the everyday stresses of military life, my husband’s schedule is changing which means my schedule is always changing," she said. "Having to make those adaptations on top of the stresses of Zoom and everything, I think that’s a situation that’s unique to military families." 

Growing up in the military, Salter is also familiar with moving to new schools. She said she worries that the varying learning models across the country might make it difficult for her children’s credits to transfer if her family moves to a new state.

Students who move during remote learning may also connect with friends differently, said Sisk, who often works with families as they move to or from Dover Air Force Base.

“[For] our families who are moving into Dover, their children have not had an opportunity to make friends in the neighborhood like they usually do," she said. "They're having to do everything virtually. They’re meeting their classmates who could be a neighbor for the first time."

On the other hand, seeing familiar faces in a Zoom classroom gives students a reason to reach out to their neighbors, Payne said.

While Porto's family switched to in-person schooling, she said they have connected with their direct neighbors, and she has reached out to other military moms on Facebook.

"The boys instantly made friends and they’ve been playing with the neighbors every day for six months," she said. "I thought we were going to have a harder time meeting people because of COVID but it hasn’t been bad."

The elementary school, with grades K-5, offers counseling groups for students new to the area or experiencing changes in family dynamics because a parent is deployed. All those groups have also switched to Zoom, Payne said. 

'Sticking together'

Because military families move often, Payne said he has noticed students show empathy and support for one another over the years. 

“The thing that I am in awe of the most here is the resiliency of our students and their families,” he said. “ If mom is gone for six months, that is really an obstacle. I think for the kids, this is just another obstacle that they know they will get through.”

Jackson agreed.

She recalled the beginning of the pandemic and how she felt about what was to come. But her mantra was the same: "As long as we’ve got each other, we’re just sticking together.”

“Being a military family, it kind of prepared us for this total 360-whirlwind that 2020 put us [in]," she added. 

And that community, that togetherness, is needed more than ever. Now is the time when it's especially important to reach out to neighbors on base and really listen to their needs, Salter said.

"We’re going to try our darndest to [help] where we can," she said. "We have to really rely on our community."