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Fifty-one-year-old Nancy Cook soon will be faced with a choice — send her grandchildren back to school this fall, opening the door to catch the novel coronavirus, or keep them home and risk them falling behind academically.

Cook, of Lincoln County, is raising two of her grandchildren and recently battled breast cancer. Her husband is 61 and underwent open heart surgery last year.

Cook has been caring for her grandson, 8, and granddaughter, 7, for about three years. She said her grandson struggles in school and receives modified curriculum, and the coronavirus shutdown put additional stress on the family.

“When school shut down, that left it to me to try to get him to get his work done, to motivate him, to want to do his work and in his eyes, MawMaw knows nothing,” Cook said. “He doesn’t like to listen to MawMaw when it comes to reading and writing and all that, because MawMaw doesn’t know anything like the teachers do. So that was a challenge in itself.”

Cook isn’t alone. In 2017, about 41,482 children or 10.9% of the total in West Virginia lived in homes where householders were grandparents, according to West Virginia State University’s Healthy Grandfamilies program.

Now, the number is likely higher, said Bonnie Dunn, Healthy Grandfamilies co-director.

“West Virginia is second in the nation in the percentage of children raised by grandparents, but actually we believe we’re probably number one or tied,” she said. “Since this program started and we are now in all 55 counties of the state, the feedback we’re receiving from the county coalitions, it’s got to be higher.”

Healthy Grandfamilies is designed as a series of discussion sessions where grandparents can interact with others like them and are provided resources on relevant topics such as communication and legal issues — at least, until COVID-19 hit, Dunn said.

About 30 counties were actively participating in local programming with their grandfamilies as the virus began to shut down the state.

The technology gap

“They’ve been staying in touch with them by phone. I’ve got a couple counties who are trying to do Zoom meetings, but with a lack of broadband, it’s hard,” Dunn said. “Another thing that came out while school was in session, we started having grandparents call in, and they had no devices. They had no laptops, iPads, nothing, particularly the elementary-age children, because a lot of the counties are furnishing them at the middle school level.”

Dunn said she’s been in contact with grandfamilies raising several children. When schools closed, they were left with no or few devices and unable to access reliable internet.

In Harrison County, where about half the county’s grandparents cared for at least one grandchild in 2015, Dunn said a grandmother raising five grandchildren had no other option but to pack up the kids each day to drive to a parked school bus with WiFi, where they’d each take turns on her iPhone completing their school work.

“Now that is unacceptable,” Dunn said.

Those with computers, internet access and support at home might have excelled during the shutdown, leaving children even further behind.

Cook said she purchased a laptop for her grandchildren to do their school work in March, and the family has Wi-Fi connection at their home.

In some counties, public school districts are combatting the issue by providing devices for every student or implementing technology loaner programs.

In Cabell County, the third-largest school district in the state, each student will receive an Apple device, regardless of whether they choose in-person or virtual learning.

Assistant Superintendent Kelly Watts said the county was set to begin the technology portion of the Healthy Grandfamilies initiative before the coronavirus drove people inside their homes. It will provide assistance to those who need it as the year progresses.

“We’ll be putting up videos for parent support. We’ll be building a helpline, especially when our social workers get back to work. When everybody gets back in, our counselors, we will be reaching out to make sure they have the support they need,” Watts said. “We will look at starting the courses back once we get school figured out, or if we can even start them virtually.”

Heading back to school

While there is no easy way to keep track of just how many grandparents are raising their grandchildren, Cabell officials asked known grandfamilies for their thoughts on the return to school. Keith Thomas, coordinator of student support in the county and local coordinator for the Healthy Grandfamilies program, said responses were mixed.

“A majority wanted the kids back in school five days a week,” he said. “A lot of them had concerns since they are elderly, bringing sickness home from the schools, but a majority of them want kids back in schools.”

Sue Burton, who heads up Lincoln County’s local Healthy Grandfamilies program, is a grandparent who has raised two grandchildren herself and is in contact with about 50 families in the same boat.

“Most of the grandparents say, ‘I want to send them to school,’” Burton said.

“’They need to go to school, because we feel like they will learn better at school,’ because some of the grandparents don’t have the ability to help them at home,” Burton said. “But then they have the fear — ‘I’m 70 years old and I’ve got grandkids to raise.’”

Though Cook and her husband both are at higher risk due to pre-existing conditions, she said her grandchildren require the discipline and structure only traditional schooling can offer.

“The biggest obstacle I’m having without being in school is my grandson doesn’t have that one-on-one with teachers that can get his attention and get him to do what he is supposed to do,” she said.

Obstacles faced and support offered

A little more than 20% of grandparents raising grandchildren in the Mountain State live in poverty. The pandemic has worsened their plight.

“In our pilot study for three years, we also uncovered the fact that 100% of our grandfamilies in that pilot presented with at least one chronic illness. So we’ve got aging grandparents who have a chronic condition who are now having the children 24/7 because of COVID,” Dunn said. “Now, they’re feeding the children three meals a day. I’ve been thinking about utilities, with the heat we’ve had, with somebody in the house now all day every day, it changes the food bill; it impacts everything.”

Healthy Grandfamilies is sending Walmart or grocery store gift cards to grandparents to supplement their food costs or to be used on other needs.

“One grandparent bought her grandson his first bicycle because she said he needed to get out of the house. He needed physical activity, so she used that gift card to buy a bike,” Dunn said. “Another one was finally able to buy new bedding for the new grandbabies. So these resources are far-reaching beyond the food, clothing and shelter kind of thing.”

Burton said she’s also been providing families with $25 gas cards to assist in transportation to pick up free meals from the school system.

“We also have some grandparents who cannot drive, so we go to the house and take it to them, so we’re making sure they get the food,” she said.

The initiative is partly funded by the state, recently receiving additional money to expand to all 55 counties. Grandfamilies keep thousands of children from entering the already flooded foster care system in West Virginia, and Burton said they need more help.

“They should be helping these grandparents more than they are helping,” she said. “If you think of all the money that the state is saving on foster programs, this keeps those kids from going into foster programs, so these grandparents should be helped financially.”

For Cook, the isolation that ricocheted from the pandemic has been the most difficult, even above financial issues.

“We need an outlet,” Cook said. “This is a different age that we are dealing with, a different century, a whole new way of learning, and being a grandparent, you know you’re supposed to be the one to spoil and send them home. Now you have to be the parent, the teacher, everything you were as a parent, but now you’re much older.

“That is something that I wish we could improve on, because I know I’m not the only one. There are at least three in my family that are raising grandkids. I realize with the pandemic it’s hard to get together, but I think it would be vital to a lot of people.”

Thomas said the open communication, grandparents having adult conversations with one another, was one of the most beneficial parts of the Grandfamilies program in Cabell.

Burton encouraged grandparents who need assistance now — whether it be legal aid, technology resources, financial help — to contact their local Healthy Grandfamilies coordinator.

“I probably have 50 grandfamilies that I’m helping right now through this, and I know there are many, many more out there,” she said. “My heart is really in it, because I’m one of them.”