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“College can wait”: With families struggling, Colorado students are working to help make ends meet

As the coronavirus has rattled the economy, leading to layoffs and reduced hours for many, high school students have stepped up to help their families. Some are now delaying college plans.

Glenwood Springs High School senior Jessica Tario rings up items for a customer at Walmart, where she works as a cashier. Tario spends about as much time working at the store as she does on her classwork. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Like many high school students, Jessica Tario’s weeks are consumed by much more than classes and homework. The Glenwood Springs High School senior spends about the same amount of time working as a cashier at Walmart as she does on her final courses before graduating.

Wearing a black mask and disposable gloves, she greets customers and rings up their cartloads of items. She reorganizes the shelves that customers pass as they exit the store. She vigorously sanitizes her counter space and keypad touched by person after person throughout the day.

The money Tario earns — $13 an hour — isn’t entirely hers to keep. She gives a share of it to her mother to help her family cover living expenses at a time the coronavirus has sent the economy spiraling.

School administrators and teachers in districts like Roaring Fork Schools, Cañon City Schools Fremont RE-1 and Harrison School District 2 are seeing more students stepping up and working to help support their families throughout the economic downturn. For some students, the need to work is placing a fork in their path as they eye life after graduation: Do they prioritize working for the sake of a paycheck or do they continue on with more schooling?

Jessica Tario, a senior at Glenwood Springs High School, cleans the surfaces of her checkout lane during her shift as a cashier at Walmart in Glenwood Springs. She has increased her hours since the onset of the coronavirus and helps her family cover living expenses with her paychecks. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Tario, 18, is determined to attend Colorado Mountain College to study nursing, though not before taking off a semester to work to save up money. She wants to spare her mother the cost of her education while also continuing to help her mother and younger twin brothers make ends meet.

Unless her mother can pay rent, her family could lose their home.

“College can wait, but my mom’s needs and my brothers’ needs are always first,” Tario said.

Tario, who’s been working at Walmart for about five months, typically worked three or four days a week — about 20 hours — before the onset of the coronavirus. She added more hours after the outbreak, working about 30 hours over five or six days a week. Her mother, a housekeeper at a hotel, was laid off, and Tario could see how stressed she was about how to pay rent and buy food.

Tario sets aside about $200 a month for her mother, who won’t accept any more than that. Her mother started back to work toward the end of April, working a couple of days cleaning at the hotel. That has lessened the pressure Tario feels, but still, she said she wants to be prepared to be there in case her mother loses her job again.

Jessica Tario, a senior at Glenwood Springs High School, operates a checkout lane at Walmart during her shift as a cashier. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Megan Hartmann, a math teacher at Glenwood Springs High School who teaches Tario, isn’t certain how many of her students are working to help support their families but suspects the number is much higher than teachers in Roaring Fork Schools are aware of.

“I think for a lot of them it comes down to parents who have either lost their jobs or who are not able to work as much as they have in the past,” Hartmann said. Some students’ parents might be undocumented immigrants who are unable to qualify for unemployment, she added.

“If these students were working these jobs prior to the coronavirus, it was not something that was impacting their access to education,” Hartmann said. But now, some are working closer to full time and some are working during the school day.

Hartmann acknowledged the emotional trauma soon-to-be-graduates are experiencing as they miss out on the traditional end to senior year that is meaningful for many students. 

There’s a lack of closure for these students, she said, suggesting they’re finding more meaning and more of a sense of accomplishment in working and contributing to their families.

Taking on “adult jobs”

Juan Alvarez, also a senior at Glenwood Springs High School, makes $12.50 an hour as a crew member at McDonalds in Glenwood Springs and uses part of his earnings to help fill the financial gaps his family has faced as the economy has worsened.

Alvarez’s mother cleans houses for a living with his aunt, who owns her own business. His mother started needing more financial help from him once the pandemic started and houses canceled cleaning services, scaling back her hours and shrinking her pay.

The 18-year-old’s family relies on him for income “a decent amount,” he said, and he also feels a sense of responsibility in acting as a role model for his brother, 15, and sister, 12.

“My siblings look up to me and I feel like I have to be a good example for them,” he said.

Jessica Tario, a senior at Glenwood Springs High School, straightens up shelves of games and toys at Walmart where she works as a cashier. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Alvarez would often work about 40 hours a week. Once it began, he wasn’t scheduled for any shifts for about a month. Once he started working again, he racked up about 20 hours a week, which he’s maintained as more people have been hired back.

Alvarez doesn’t yet know what direction he’ll head after graduation. He applied to Colorado Mountain College and Colorado Mesa University with aspirations to study marine biology, but he’s also weighing whether his family will continue needing his help financially. He’s fairly confident his mother will be able to provide for his siblings, but he still feels an obligation to help.

“I feel like they’ve done so much for me,” Alvarez said.

But he also acknowledges that he would be able to help his family out more if he carried on with school after graduation. Paying for school would be up to him and would require him to work even more shifts and more over time.

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Nicole Schurbon, principal of Sierra High School in Harrison School District 2, knows some of her students are experiencing the same kind of economic hardship. As many as half of the 750 kids at the Colorado Springs school have worked during the school year for the sake of their working-class families, single-parent households or households that include extended family. Now, with the economic downturn, she said, and they’re definitely feeling the pressure of being a “contributing member of their family.”

Before the pandemic, students typically were working to cover their own personal needs, whereas now they’re shifting to help pay the bills, she said. 

If their parents are deemed essential workers, teenagers are now having to become a caregiver and continue their own schoolwork while making sure their younger siblings do not fall behind.

“It’s really become a juggling act for our students who are already feeling their own personal stress of learning digitally,” Schurbon said. “They now have to become a teacher for their siblings as well.”

Many of those students who are working have jobs in food service, at Walmart or in manual labor positions that she said people don’t typically associate with high schoolers.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing these students, who are still children, have to take on adult jobs,” the principal said.

Wrapping up classwork at 4 a.m.

Tario juggles her work schedule with five courses, though she only needs credit for three of them to graduate. Her job at Walmart in Glenwood Springs sometimes forces her to stay up late at night to complete her schoolwork or wake up early to tend to it before she has to punch the clock.

Tario stays up until 3 or 4 a.m. twice a week to study, leaving only four to six hours to sleep depending on her work schedule. The most challenging part of balancing work and school, she said, is having the energy for either one. Sometimes, she doesn’t want to go to work because of being tired from focusing on her schoolwork or she simply craves a break.

“I find myself making myself more stressed because I haven’t done the work because I’ve been not motivated to do it,” Tario said.

As daunting as life after graduation can look to these students, getting through high school is a challenge in and of itself with their demanding schedules.

Schurbon understands the toll those schedules take on students.

“When our students are coming home from work, we’re still asking them to log in to complete work and it’s definitely a mental obstacle for our students to have to overcome,” she said.

It goes back to the idea that “we’re asking children to become adults so quickly and learn how to manage their time and it’s not anything that any of us want to have to prepare our students for and they’re being thrown into the deep end,” she added.

To meet some students where their needs are at, including students who work during the day to help support their families, Sierra High School offers night school, Schurbon said. A teacher meets with those students virtually three evenings a week to ensure they have support and access to curriculum.

At Cañon City High School, Principal Bill Summers estimates about 20% of its student population had jobs going into the coronavirus. With the onset of the pandemic, those jobs became critical for family support and new jobs became hard to find.

For those students who work, Summers said their jobs are dramatically impacting their ability to do their schoolwork. The school, in response, is dropping course loads down to something more manageable for some students. Rather than lose students completely, Summer said the school is emphasizing classes needed for graduation and cutting out nonrequired classes.

Summers believes a small percentage of students whom the district has been unable to contact despite outreach might be considering working over trying to graduate from high school to prioritize helping their families.

Among several students the district’s counseling staff has heard from, the message is clear.

Online education is not viable for them because they’re working too much, Summers said.

“Supporting the family is more important.”

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