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Learning at home during COVID: challenges and opportunities for students with children

  • 8 October 2020
  • By Patrick Mulrenan, Helen Redd, Jane Lewis, Kelly Cooper & Heather Allison

This blog was kindly contributed by Patrick Mulrenan, Helen Redd, Jane Lewis, Kelly Cooper and Heather Allison at London Metropolitan University and reflects emerging themes in research on student parents. 

As university students return to their studies, the focus of the news has been on the threat of students spreading COVID and on the limits placed on students socialising with new friends. But this reflects a rather stereotypical view of students and universities. Many students, particularly those with caring responsibilities, study from home and commute to campus.

The focus here will be on the impact COVID has on a group of students who are present in significant numbers in higher education, but who are said to remain ‘invisible’: students with children. We do not know how many university students have children, because universities are not required to collect this information. A 2015 survey involving 4700 students estimated that 9 per cent of students have dependent children. The figure is likely to be much higher in newer universities.

As part of our ongoing research into the experience of student parents, we completed twelve in-depth interviews. The impact of COVID came out strongly in the interviews, revealing the challenges faced by student parents working remotely from their campus. Home studying during COVID provides not only practical but emotional challenges to these student parents, but the research also reveals students’ determination and resilience.

Many student parents live in precarious housing situations and lack space for both family life and study. They rely on university libraries as a quiet space where they can study away from home. With libraries closed, students waited till their children had gone to bed to engage in focused academic work. One student, sharing a one-bedroom flat with his wife and two children, said:

Most of the time I had to start [academic work] throughout the night, up to two in the morning, three in the morning and then wake up nine-ish, give them breakfast, and then school because the school would send all the online material.

Unsurprisingly, IT issues emerged as a key concern among students working from home. Although some had Chromebooks provided by the university, some still had to share laptops with their children. One student noted that she was not in a position to share her laptop: ‘sometimes I give them my phone’. Others had to pay for printers for their own work and for their children’s home schooling. Another student, who gave birth to her first child 11 days after lockdown noted:

I’ve got a printer but the ink costs me a bloody fortune… I go through it like you wouldn’t believe. … now that we’ve got [son’s name], like the cost of living, it’s like doubled and tripled.

The closure of schools during lockdown provided particular challenges to some of these students. They were expected to home-school children of different ages and different levels of development. While they acknowledged that they did not have the full set of skills to do this, they took this duty very seriously:

I take care of it, I teach them, it’s my responsibility.

I had to be the teacher, as well as, the mom, and the cook the cleaner, everything else. 

The students took a highly structured approach to home schooling, often trying to replicate the school timetable. In one case, the student made sandwiches for her children each morning, as she would normally do during the school week. This helped provide sense of continuity for children, and released some precious time for the student’s own studies.

The emotional aspect of learning during COVID also came out strongly in interviews. Research indicates that student parents come to university to improve their families’ prospects. But they are worried about the jobs market and the future of the nurseries they rely on. Many universities have been flexible about delays in submission, but finalists regret that they are graduating late and that their graduation ceremonies are delayed. One student had not told her family that she had delayed her final assessments:

I know that I shouldn’t be embarrassed, but I can’t help how I feel. And I am embarrassed, I am ashamed. It took me so long to get back into uni.

Family relationships are key to the lives of student parents. The students shared their academic achievements with their children, and said their children understood they had to focus on academic work. But, of course, many children are too young to understand and some students felt guilty about being at home but not interacting enough with their families:

I did feel really guilty but at the same time I reminded myself, you know I’m not just neglecting her so I can go sit in my bedroom and watch Netflix all day, and leave her to do her own thing. It was for something important.

Research has consistently shown that student progress and retention depends on feeling part of a group, and having the support of friends at university. A sense of confidence is promoted by daily informal interactions with staff and other students. Although some interviewees found that internet groups enabled students to support one another, there was a sense that informal daily contact was missing.

Unexpectedly, some students found positive aspects to working at home during COVID. Initially, they welcomed time at home and a break in shuttling between university, childcare and home. For others, they were able to focus more on work because they knew that they were not missing out on socialising with friends and family:

I know it sounds really selfish but when I was doing my dissertation, I thought if everyone else around me was off having fun and doing this doing that, it would have been a lot harder… So, I kind of liked the fact that everyone was trapped in their house doing nothing

Many universities have been agile in responding to the new education landscape, but are there any other practical steps that they can take to support student parents?

The first step is to collect information on student parents both on entry and during their studies. Universities can also try to recreate informal contacts with staff and other students by building this into core teaching. Finally, we can build on the positive aspects of the current student experience. For many student parents, the pandemic has shown that they can learn from home. Given the right practical and emotional support from universities, student parents may benefit in future from a more blended learning experience.

N.B. The photograph is from Junior Graduation at London Metropolitan University, which is part of the annual Family Day at the university. The student has given permission for this to be used as part of this article.

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