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Raising Their Kids’ Kids

By Bailey Staats

Bonnie Dunn, co-director of the Healthy Grandfamilies Coalition, said during the pandemic, when school was totally online, a grandmother of six in Harrison County routinely took five of her grandchildren to one of the county’s school buses — being used as a hotspot — to connect to Wi-Fi. She and the kids would sit in the car while she used her cell phone to help each child download and complete their homework.

There were families in the state who did not have Wi-Fi in their homes and some who had Wi-Fi that wasn’t fast or strong enough to support their children attending online school. This was especially true for families in rural areas. But technology tends to be one of the areas that is more challenging for grandfamilies.

According to The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Database, there were 26,000 children being raised by a grandparent in West Virginia in 2019. The state is second in the country for  highest number of grandchildren being raised by grandparents per capita.

Dunn was raised by her grandparents after her parents divorced, so she has a passion for grandfamilies. As the number of those families began to grow, she began looking for ways to offer them resources. In 2015, the Healthy Grandfamilies Coalition was born as a partnership between Dunn and West Virginia State University’s Department of Social Work and Extension Services.

The coalition helps grandparents with anything they need. A key service are classes in every county to help grandparents get funding as well as skills for parenting a generation growing up internet savvy. But the coalition helps in other ways, too. Dunn  helped the grandmother   in Harrison County get a laptop.

When schools closed and learning went online in West Virginia, the classes the organization had been offering   were forced to stop, and they haven’t resumed.

One of the biggest problems for grandparents in Preston County has been finding childcare. Brandi Davis the coalition coordinator for programs in  Monongalia and Preston counties, said, “With our Preston County program the average grandparent that utilized our Healthy Grandfamilies services was a 65-year-old, full-time, working female.”

Davis, who is also a regional director of the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, said before the pandemic, the children were at school while the grandparents worked, but during the pandemic, with school being online, grandparents   had to not only find childcare but also pay for it.

Some families  did not have computers or tablets for their children. Many counties  found ways to fix this problem. Grandfamilies in Monongalia County, for example, have  access to electronics courtesy of their school systems. But Wi-Fi is another matter.

Christy East,  principal of Welch Elementary School in McDowell County, said 30% of the students at her school are being raised by grandparents. McDowell County provided families with   electronics to complete schoolwork if they did not have access to them at home. But East said her county only has two Wi-Fi providers, which caused problems for families because these providers could not support that many homes logging on at the same time. Some families did not have Wi-Fi in their homes at all, so they had to go to access points at libraries and schools.

“People who are relying on those access points don’t always have transportation to the access points, so even though it’s provided they may not have a reliable vehicle,” East said.

The elemetary school has been following the guidelines to keep everyone safe as well as keep stress down for the students.

“We had a family that started out virtual, and they couldn’t handle it. It was just too much. They were overwhelmed, so they sent their grandkids back to school. When they got here, one of them wasn’t feeling well and the other one was like, ‘you can’t get sick because you can’t get Pawpaw sick’,” East said.

The community’s in-school site facilitator Shannon Pace of Welch Elementary helped grandfamiles troubleshoot issues to help kids get work done.

“I did a lot of home visits. I had one kid, who I literally drove to his house every day for a month or more and just sat on his porch and helped him log in,” Pace said.

Pace  set up a website with easy-to-follow video tutorials for families to refer to when having trouble navigating  online programs. She takes calls from families to walk them through their technical issues. She helped grandfamilies, but the challenges were universal.

“A lot of times it would be a pretty simple fix but there was such a disconnect they couldn’t even really tell us what was wrong,” East said. Even now as school reaches its end,  they are still dealing with technology issues according to East.

Another  problem faced by grandfamiles is that teaching methods have changed. “Grandparents and great-grandparents raising children have never done the type of school work that we do now,” Pace said.

 Kanawha County grandmother Rosa Hill has custody of her 13-year-old granddaughter and watches her grandson after school. Her granddaughter continued online even after the schools reopened, but her grandson returned to school.

Hill said she had a difficult time helping her grandchildren with  their classes. She particularly struggled with the new ways of teaching math.

Monongalia County grandmother, Alberta Nestor is raising three of her grandsons, ages 12, 11 and 9. Nestor does not consider herself to be good with technology. She called online school  horrible. She said one of the reasons the children were removed from their parents’ home was because the parents were supposed to be homeschooling them, but they were not.

She said elementary school online classes were easier to navigate, but one of her grandsons is in middle school, and logging in was a challenge.

“For his classes everything was a different code, so that made it really, really hard,” she said. Nestor was attending the Healthy Grandfamilies classes for help before they shut  down due to COVID-19.

The Healthy Grandfamilies Coalition has not  set a date to resume classes.

Bailey Staats is a student in the WVU Reed College of Media. This article was written as part of the multimedia storytelling capstone class and offered to The Dominion Post for publication.