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Two kids, three laptops and one frustrated working mom: How an Anchorage family is struggling through the start of the school year

Sabrina Shoup stands with her children, Noah, 7, and Levi, 5, in Anchorage on Sept. 4, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Four mornings a week, Sabrina Shoup and her two young sons sit, each with a laptop, at a black kitchen table in their 1,000-square-foot apartment in Chugiak, trying to focus.

Due to the number of COVID-19 cases in the municipality, the Anchorage School District began the school year with online-only classes a little more than two weeks ago. Now, Shoup and her sons, Levi, 5, and Noah, 7, struggle through each morning.

This new schedule — and there’s no other way to put it, Shoup said — is just the worst.

The 29-year old mother wakes up early, usually about 5:30 a.m. She sits down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and tries to take advantage of the few quiet moments before her sons wake.

Some mornings she gets a start on her own schoolwork. Shoup is a little more than halfway through a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Alaska.

But before long, she must roust her sons and get them started on their school days. Shoup also begins work for her job at an Anchorage nonprofit remotely at 8 a.m. Before school buildings were closed, she spent the full day in the office, but now she often spends mornings at home.

By 8:30 a.m., the kids are usually at the kitchen table with breakfast. A little later, it’s time to put headphones on and fire up their school-issued laptops. It’s Levi’s kindergarten year, and he has a Zoom session with his class at 9 a.m. every weekday except Wednesday.

So Shoup helps him log in and stay focused while she tries to get some work done for her job. Levi squirms and often holds his head in his hands. He feels left out of class during Zoom sessions and doesn’t understand why he must stay quiet, Shoup said.

“My son sits there and says, ’Mom, they’re not including me.’ Or, ’Mom, I want to talk to my friend.’ A kindergartner does not need to be on a Zoom,” Shoup said.

Sabrina Shoup's kitchen table is the place where Levi, 5, and Noah, 7, do their school work and Sabrina does her own work. (Photo by Sabrina Shoup)

She also sets second-grader Noah up with some schoolwork until his Zoom class at 11 a.m.

Shoup moves back and forth from her own computer screen to theirs, helping her sons with their classes, troubleshooting internet connection issues and Zoom logins. In between helping her boys, she tries to remember to sip her coffee and to get her own work done, sometimes logging in to Zoom meetings of her own.

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Because school is online, parents are struggling to find new routines for their families, a number of them told the Daily News. Their lives have been entirely rearranged. They grapple with technology and internet bandwidth issues, scheduling and work flexibility. They try to find affordable childcare. They coax their children through the emotional distress of it all. All this, while tackling the unfamiliar challenge of supporting the online education of their children.

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Families the Daily News interviewed all have varied experiences depending on their jobs, socioeconomic status, living situations and the children’s educational needs and grade levels. But one thing is the same: the uncertainty.

Parents wonder if they should prepare for the whole school year to be online. Some worry whether they are making the right choices for their children’s educations and if they can do enough to support their learning.

Shoup wonders how long she can keep up this balancing act.

It’s a Band-Aid, not a sustainable situation for Shoup, who once depended on her boys’ public school, Birchwood ABC Elementary, to take her oldest son during the day, and the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA for child care.

Now, after the last Zoom session, Shoup drives to work at noon, sometimes dropping her kids off at her younger brother’s home. Other times, she takes the boys to the office.

Shoup’s live-in boyfriend works nights at a car rental company. He helps out with child care on Mondays, his only weekday off. The boys’ father is in another state.

“It’s pretty much me being a single parent trying to do all this crap,” Shoup said.

And though her boss is flexible and understanding, Shoup worries. She feels like a burden on her office because of the mornings at home.

On top of that, Shoup has power of attorney over her own father, who recently had a serious mental health issue and is recovering. She’s the only one in the family with a vehicle, so must lend it to her brother or take her father to his many health appointments, she said.

And twice a month in the middle of the day, she must also pick up take-home paper packets of lessons for her children from Birchwood.

A more permanent child care solution has been tough to find. Shoup can get child care assistance money from the state — she qualifies for about $300 a month per child — but because she now must pay for a full day of care, she still can’t afford it. It would cost about $1,700 a month total for both children, maybe $1,100 out of her pocket.

Plus, families that don’t usually need them are now taking up child care slots typically used by low-income families, she said.

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Thomas Azzarella, director of the Alaska Afterschool Network, said Anchorage is down from its usual 80 or more “out of school time programs” to about 12. Many of those are now running all-day programs that cost a lot more. Those programs are more expensive to run right now due to pandemic precautions, he said.

Unless the state, municipality, or the school district steps up to help offset those costs, “we’re just going to see a lot of families still not being able to access care,” Azzarella said.

Shoup is also worried for her boys’ educations. She said she’s beyond frustrated with the school district’s plan.

“I am not a teacher. I did not go to school to be a teacher. Not in the least bit do I think I am going to be able to teach my children as they should,” Shoup said. “They will both be behind if school ever goes back to normal.”

The Birchwood teachers are trying their best to be helpful, Shoup said. They obviously care, and she appreciates that, she said.

But she can’t afford to pay a private tutor or join a “pod” of families pooling educational resources.

“Those people are fortunate to have the money to pay for those things for their children. And I cannot afford that. It’s just that simple.”

Expensive private school is not a good option, either. Although she might qualify for a scholarship, the curriculum is different from that in public schools, she said.

The first week of school was frustrating and full of setbacks. She said she is more fortunate than some because she has internet in her home and has a personal laptop. Scheduling delivery of the district’s Chromebook laptops for her sons was a nightmare because Shoup was at work during delivery times.

Even with a Chromebook finally in hand, her son sat through a 20-minute Zoom session with a blank white screen on his computer. He was never allowed into the Zoom classroom by the teacher due to an issue with his laptop.

“If for some reason my laptop breaks or my internet goes out, they’re marked totally absent,” Shoup said.

She’s also struggling with bandwidth issues during the morning Zoom sessions and can’t afford to upgrade her internet package, she said. It doesn’t make sense to her that she must pay for internet for her sons to attend a public school, she said. She wonders about the families without internet.

She applied to get a Wi-Fi hotspot from the district so her children could do schoolwork at her brother’s home in the afternoons, but received a denial email. So now, the kids must cram all of their schoolwork into the first part of the day.

Shoup doesn’t want her kids — or anyone else’s — to get sick from the coronavirus. Some people are dying from it, she said. But she also thinks that if a school takes every possible precaution, kids and teachers will likely be safe.

“I feel like their education is being put to the side,” she said.

All Shoup wants, she said, is for school buildings to reopen.

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