Ever since the pandemic began, Amanda Schermerhorn has put her children's schooling before her own.

Managing her four kids' ever-changing remote and in-person class schedules is often a full day's work. So Schermerhorn, a full-time student at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Detroit Lakes, works around the clock, carving out time to complete her online classwork late at night and early in the morning.

"Juggling four schedules in addition to mine … definitely makes it a lot more hectic," said Schermerhorn, who used to study during the day while her kids were at school. "We're all feeling a little stressed."

College students across Minnesota have battled stress and burnout during the pandemic, but perhaps no group of students has been more overwhelmed than those who are raising children while they pursue a degree. These students are scrambling daily to meet class deadlines, earn a paycheck and oversee their children's lessons. And they are weathering this exhausting academic year without the in-person study groups, tutoring sessions and campus resources they typically rely on.

Now more than ever, advocates say, colleges and universities must prioritize the roughly 1 in 5 undergraduates who are raising children. Student parents, most of whom are women, are far less likely to finish college than others, with just 37% graduating within six years of enrollment, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. The obstacles they face, from child care affordability to economic insecurity, have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

"Parenting students' college enrollment is one of the first things that will get sacrificed for employment or to support their children," said Carrie Welton, director of policy and advocacy at Temple University's Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.

Schermerhorn, 35, has sacrificed sleep, personal time and peace of mind this past year. She's balancing a full slate of online classes and two internships this semester while caring for her 14-year-old twins, Travis and Ella, 11-year-old son Sylas and 7-year-old son Richard, who has autism.

When her kids log into class from their Detroit Lakes home, Schermerhorn stays off the internet to avoid overloading it and waits until night to complete her assignments or parks in front of the college to use the Wi-Fi.

"I want my kids to do well in school, so they are going to take precedence over my work," Schermerhorn said.

Cindy Raney, a 29-year-old student at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minn., reached her breaking point last fall when all six of her kids, ages 3 to 11, moved to distance learning. With her husband, an Army recruiter, working from his Rochester office each day, Raney had to manage both her studies and the household.

During the day, Raney helped her kids navigate online classes and even taught some of their lessons. For her oldest daughter's health class, Raney had to give her a talk about "the birds and the bees," something she had hoped her daughter would learn through a more wide-ranging classroom discussion with her teacher and peers.

Raney struggled to get more than four hours of sleep. She found herself dozing off while doing homework and "missing deadline after deadline," so she dropped one of her science classes late in the semester to lighten her workload.

"I just couldn't keep up. … Even after almost a whole year of doing this, it's still not normal," Raney said. All her kids moved back to in-person learning in January.

Support from afar

Colleges are doing what they can to support student parents during this time, even though most on-campus services have been scaled back. They are offering emergency grants to those who are struggling financially. And professors are negotiating deadline extensions and letting parents turn off their webcams during class so they can tend to their kids.

At Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, student parents can pick up bags filled with pasta, peanut butter, canned goods and other nonperishables. The college has also held drive-through school supply giveaways where low-income students could pick up materials for themselves and their children.

Khou Vue, Metropolitan State's student parent and resource coordinator, schedules one-on-one video appointments with students who are struggling to balance their studies and parenthood. She also organizes Zoom workshops and virtual activities to foster a sense of belonging. "We understand that building relationships is a big part of retention," Vue said.

Advisers at the University of Minnesota's Student Parent Help Center have had less success arranging virtual meetings and support groups because many students are "Zoomed out," said Susan Warfield, the center's program director.

The center's counselors have instead focused on direct outreach, calling every student parent twice per semester to see how they are doing. "Some started crying immediately and said, 'I'm just drowning,' " Warfield said. "They were too overwhelmed to think about asking for help."

State leaders are trying to offer support, too. In his budget proposal released last month, Gov. Tim Walz recommended simplifying the state's postsecondary child care grant program's application and award process so more student parents can benefit.

An unusual opportunity

For some parents, the pandemic created the ideal conditions for them to go back to school.

Elena Williams, 29, enrolled in online classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College last fall. She said she was able to do so only because her full-time job at an accounting firm has also gone remote. Now, Williams can work and pursue a degree from home while caring for her 4-year-old son, Parker.

There are still challenges, like when Parker climbs on his mom's lap or makes shadow puppets in the background of her Zoom classes — "It's fun when Mom is on webcam," Williams laughed. She hopes to eventually earn a bachelor's degree that will help her secure a promotion and higher salary.

"I don't want to frame the pandemic as being a good thing, but it's like I'm getting that opportunity because there's this increased understanding for what's going on in people's lives," Williams said. She hopes colleges will continue to offer a robust slate of online classes.

Even once the pandemic lets up, Schermerhorn does not expect life to get any less hectic.

Schermerhorn will transfer to Minnesota State University, Moorhead this fall to pursue a bachelor's degree in political science. If classes are in person, her round-trip commute from home to the campus will total about two hours.

"Just when you think it can't get any crazier, then it will," she said, describing life as a student parent.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234 Twitter: @ryanfaircloth