Personal Story

Feature Issue on Crisis Management for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Coping at Work

Author(s)

Ellie Hefner is a paraprofessional in Montgomery, Texas. She may be reached at elliehefner@yahoo.com.

A woman wearing a mask and a red sweatshirt looks down at a young girl. The girl also wears a mask and is looking at a book on a table. Also on the table is a box of brightly colored pencils.

Paraprofessional Ellie Hefner helps a young family member with distance learning at home during the pandemic.

Wow, what a crazy year 2020 was for our world! I would like to share with you some of my experiences over the year and how COVID-19 has affected me.

Before the pandemic hit, I was hired full-time as a paraprofessional working with elementary school children with special needs. I received my certification through the Postsecondary Access and Training in Human Services (PATHS) Program at Texas A&M University in College Station.

The program is for young adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. I decided on the paraprofessional track after working with life-skills students in high school as part of a “Ready-Set-Teach” class. I felt a calling to work with these students because of the similar struggles we shared and the impact my former teachers had on me to keep going and to never give up. Interestingly, I was also a student at the same elementary school more than 10 years ago, where I was on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and required accommodations for a learning disability. I was born with Benign Congenital Hypotonia, or Floppy Baby Syndrome, which is a disorder that affects my muscles, causing them to have abnormally low tone. Many people with this condition also have learning disabilities, which is something I struggled with in school. Like my current students, I had to work extra hard to do things that most kids my age could easily do. Grade school can be particularly challenging for children with special needs, which is why I feel so drawn to work with these kids today. I thank God every day for helping me get through the numerous obstacles I had to face and for giving me strength and purpose. Without my faith, I do not think I would have been able to graduate from high school, complete my para certification and gain enough confidence to find a job on my own.

In March 2020, just days before our spring break, our school principal announced that we would have an extended time off due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in our area. I started worrying about how serious the situation had become. Toilet paper was disappearing off the shelves in grocery stores, people were fighting for their lives on ventilators throughout the country, and the death rate was getting higher. Not much later, my school district decided to go to online learning. It was difficult and challenging at first to learn how to use new instructional tools like Zoom and YouTube. Because our Internet connection was slow, the screen would often freeze. Sometimes the microphone wouldn’t work. We overcame this by understanding that having a slow Internet connection or other issues are out of our control. Then I communicated by email with parents to get the microphone turned on. Because we were so isolated it made things more difficult, but I was not alone as we were all in the same boat. Eventually, the more we worked with Zoom, we got the hang of it.

During this time at home and away from my students, all I kept thinking about was how much they relied on their normal routines and social interactions. I was concerned that they might be confused why they could not go to school in person and that they might regress. I experienced a lot of anxiety and sadness when the pandemic first started to spread across the country. I also rely on routines to help me manage my day. It lifted my spirits when my school decided (safely) to do drive-by parades once a week for our students. I decorated my car and drove separately with other teachers through the neighborhoods where my students lived. I was also in charge of making science experiment videos for the kids and scheduled a few Zoom calls with one of my students. It really encouraged me to keep going and made me feel a lot better.

What I wished people without disabilities would understand is that we all have emotions, and we love to socialize with others too. When I was not working, I would spend time with my family or Facetime with friends and relatives. I spent many days at the dog park with my two dogs, Jackson and Marley. During the break it made me stop and think about God and my life. As humans we often take life for granted. We do not always live in the moment and appreciate what we do have. I would say that the pandemic has taught me to enjoy life more and to stay positive even when things are difficult.

Life has changed since going back to work in person in August. Masks are mandatory and we are required to “socially distance” while in school. Trying to accomplish this with elementary grade students that require hands-on learning can be difficult. We use dots throughout the school to ensure we maintain a safe distance and sanitize the equipment as much as possible, but it is hard to keep reminding my students not to share toys and to stand on the colored dots while waiting in line. It’s so hard because they want to hug you, share, and sit near each other. We are making it work, but it breaks my heart because teaching life skills is such a hands-on activity. Instead of hugging now, we modeled giving elbow and air high-fives. I showed one of my students how to use feet to give high fives by pulling up your foot and tapping the other person’s shoe. My mom, who is a kindergarten teacher, has worked twice as hard ever since COVID-19 hit. She, along with the other teachers, stay late after school making sure their students are “good to go” to do both online learning and in-person learning. Many nights I stay late with her at school to help prepare for the next day. I pray the world appreciates teachers more and realizes how much they do for students during this difficult time.

My routine outside of work remains the same. I love being at home catching up on Netflix or just hanging out with family and friends. We have found alternative ways to spend time with each other. One new thing I did was visit a “drive through” zoo called Franklin Drive Thru Safari in Franklin, Texas. I also love to turn on the music to dance with my family. We also went to several outdoor restaurants nearby, but I mainly spent my time at home “experimenting” in the kitchen. I learned new recipes and went to the grocery store by myself to get food for the recipes and get other things we needed. I love doing this because it boosts my confidence in being independent.

I hope my story gives you peace and encouragement. What 2020 has taught me is to not hold grudges. Be kind, be grateful, be patient, and live life like it is your last 24 hours – safely of course – because we have no idea when it is our last 24 hours.

Building Engagement with Distance Learning | This video discusses accessibility issues during the pandemic in one Virginia school district.