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The unseen effects of COVID-19 on special needs students and their families

SHARE The unseen effects of COVID-19 on special needs students and their families
Students work on computers Belknap Elementary School in Beaver on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

My greatest worry with the COVID-19 pandemic might not be what you expect of a single 25-year-old young woman. Maybe it’s because of my background, maybe it’s my personal life, or maybe it’s my college education and work experience.

I have a sister with a severe form of cerebral palsy that affects her physically and mentally. Because of my love and experiences with her, I decided to pursue a career in special education.

I began working as a teacher in a special school with children with the most severe disabilities in the district. I had 10 students, all high school age. With my classroom decorated, lessons planned and binders prepared, I welcomed my students with great anticipation on the first day of school. Most of my students were nonverbal, or in other words, struggled to communicate with more than one- or two-word phrases.

Since words aren’t always an option, sometimes individuals with disabilities engage in hitting, biting and screaming as a form of communication — especially when they are frustrated or afraid. I’d seen these behaviors many times and was comfortable.

However, I began to experience extreme physical aggression from my students including all out attacks that took at least three or four teachers to control. I spent most of my time restraining students and taking a beating multiple times a day. Teaching, which was what I spent four years studying to do, rarely happened. Instead, I came home bleeding, with bruises, scratches and bite marks.

Even through all this, my love for those students did not waver. Instead, it grew. Why? Because during these frightening episodes, I could see the fear, terror and cry for help in their eyes. These students were suffering even more than I was. I became determined to help. I began graduate school studying applied behavior analysis.

Sadly, even with all my efforts, after nine months I had to resign my position. The mental and emotional strain had taken a tremendous toll on every aspect of my life and I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. On my doctor’s order, I reluctantly resigned. I felt like a failure.

What does this have to do with COVID-19? One week after I resigned, the school shut down and everyone went into quarantine. While I felt some relief that my classroom wouldn’t need a teacher, my relief was soon replaced with intense worry for the parents and families of these special children.

Research has shown that parents who have a child with a disability experience much more stress, depression and anxiety than parents with typical children. During this time of self-isolation, many mothers struggle to balance the time to not only entertain their children for an extra eight hours a day, but also take on the role of teacher. Now imagine having a child or even several children with special needs.

Individuals with disabilities, especially with autism spectrum disorder, find comfort in routine. But now, as a result of COVID-19, their whole worlds have been turned upside down. What happens when they are afraid and cannot communicate how they are feeling? Outward manifestations of behavior to show they are frustrated and scared. The very behaviors that caused me to have PTSD, are what some parents might be facing alone 24/7.

In October of 1984, James E. Faust, a former member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered comfort to parents in such difficult circumstances.

“I have a great appreciation for those loving parents who stoically bear and overcome their anguish and heartbreak for a child who was born with or who has developed a serious mental or physical infirmity. This anguish often continues every day, without relief, during the lifetime of the parent or the child. Not infrequently, parents are required to give superhuman nurturing care that never ceases, day or night….The care of those who are diminished is a special service rendered to the Master himself, for ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these …, ye have done it unto me.”

By sharing my story, I hope to spread awareness that there are so many individuals with disabilities, their families, and teachers who are suffering silently. Proper funding is vital, local support is crucial and I hope we can all have more compassion to those around us, especially during this difficult time.

Bruna Goncalves graduated from Brigham Young University in special education and is pursuing ways to better serve special needs children and their families.