- Associated Press - Sunday, November 22, 2020

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - When LaMonica Cochran-Ray awoke on a Friday before daybreak, it was to the plain and unfamiliar walls of a Montgomery hotel room. At 5:30 a.m., she opened her eyes, took a deep breath and prepared to move.

She’d need to wake her two children, get them dressed and ready for school before they hit the road after check-out. But first, she must get out of bed.

Cochran-Ray pulsed her fingers and toes, then she massaged her hands and feet to stave off the persistent numbness she’s felt since last July, when she collided with a drunken driver who had pulled into oncoming traffic.

The family has been on the move since this summer, after an area homicide set off a spate of shootings that forced them to flee when police warned her and the neighbors about revenge attempts from the victim’s family.

One week in October, Cochran-Ray, her 9-year-old son, Jeremiah, and her 3-year-old daughter, Ziah, stayed with her brother in Montgomery, and an aunt and uncle 100 miles away in Georgia. Before the end of the week, they were back in Montgomery, in a hotel room.



So much movement adds to the challenge of setting up a remote classroom. Cochran-Ray’s injuries don’t make it any easier. To sit, to stand and to lie too long is painful.

It’s prevented her from working her former job as a cosmetologist and being out of work means no insurance. She manages the constant aches and sharp pain by rationing medication from week to week, storing up pills for days that are unbearable, rather than just aggravating.

The family decamped that morning to the hotel lobby, where they could spread out at a long worktable. Jeremiah needed to study for a math test, while Ziah practiced her letters.

This time they’d remembered everything: laptop and charger, tablet, log-in password sheet. But before they could settle in, a new problem foiled them: faulty wiring meant the laptop charger wouldn’t work when plugged into the outlet closest to the big table in the lobby.

Instead, Jeremiah sat reading his new chapter book, part of an accelerated reading program, while his mother attempted to pull up some practice problems on her cell phone that he could copy onto scratch paper.

Hope for a more settled life lies ahead. The family plans to move about 40 miles north to Clanton, where Cochran-Ray has picked out a parcel of land for their modular home. But even with the move, she doesn’t expect their school days to get any easier.

This would have been the year Ziah entered Head Start, but between the move and COVID-19 concerns, Cochran-Ray chose to keep her out. Jeremiah, now a fifth grader, is enrolled in Chilton County schools, where parents have a choice between in-person instruction or an at-home version the district calls blended learning.

Jeremiah is patient, with searching brown eyes that evince a maturity beyond his age. But he is growing tired of his mother’s frets and gentle reminders to keep distance from neighborhood kids. You can’t play basketball without touching the ball he recently reminded her. Ziah is nearly fed up too. Filled with the probing curiosity of a 3-year-old, she displays frank authority when she surmises that, despite what her mother has told her, they are not, in fact, in school but instead in a kitchen.

“They don’t understand how very serious this is,” Cochran-Ray said.

Both the single mom and her son have asthma, and his is severe. Some mornings he can barely catch his breath and wears a nebulizer machine that allows him to inhale medicine through a silicone mask. So, Cochran-Ray felt she had little choice but to keep him home, even as she struggles with guilt over her decision. While other children have returned to classrooms, met teachers and made new friends, Jeremiah has yet to even hear his teacher’s voice.

His classes are organized via a learning management system where teachers upload coursework and assignments. Students are given until 8 p.m. each day to check in and claim attendance. The system offers flexibility and the option to go at your own pace, which has been helpful given the family’s movements but also puts pressure on Cochran-Ray to be a full-time teacher, tackling everything from long division to natural science.

She worries Jeremiah isn’t as engaged at home as he was at school, where hands-on projects and demonstrations could excite his interest. And some of the third-party applications and websites can be glitchy. Last year Jeremiah received A’s and B’s. His latest progress report shows him with C’s. She’s holding off on a decision about what to do next semester until she sees what the county’s coronavirus case numbers look like this winter.

“Seventy-five percent of me wants him at home,” Cochran-Ray said. “The other 25 is thinking about what a 9-year-old needs. They need to interact. It’s unfair for him, but the safety aspect weighs heavy on me.”

Before the pandemic set in, the family traveled often, visiting family in Chicago or driving to beaches on the Gulf Coast. Lately, Jeremiah has been dreaming of a visit to California and Australia when he’s older.

“I plan to write a book about five friends that travel the world,” he said with the sureness of a man with tickets already in hand. “I want to learn about the world.”

They do the best they can with what they have for now. In the hotel lobby, Jeremiah got started on his math problems while Ziah wore headphones, her tiny fingers wrapped around a tablet dressed in a bright pink sleeve. Her eyes filled with reflections from the screen before darting to her mother, to her brother then around the room. Cochran-Ray shifted her weight in her chair, then soon favored her feet.

The members of a girls’ volleyball team shuffled in and out, a coach shouting reminders to the players. Soon after, a hotel cleaner fired up an industrial vacuum.

Jeremiah worked along as if it were merely the hum of a distant wave.

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