SALT LAKE COUNTY (ABC4 News) – Being a parent isn’t always easy, but parenting during a pandemic is an entirely new challenge. Many still have to work while entertaining and educating their children. However, the task is especially unique for parents of children with special needs.

Take Tamara Willie’s daughter, Naela Ann Kim, for example. The bubbly, energetic 6-year-old loves all things related to Disney’s Moana, coloring, singing, dancing, and playing outside with her family. But she also requires extra care and attention.

Naela was born with Down syndrome and went through two open heart surgeries, making her extra vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. Willie said she eats through a feeding tube on a specific schedule and is working on her potty training. In addition to her usual class time, Naela also attends speech and occupational therapy two to three times a month.

But since classes came to a halt a few weeks ago, Willie has had to step in and fill another role for Naela while still juggling her full-time job.

“You have to be the teacher. You have to be the mom. You have to be the friend. You have to be all of that along with everything else,” she said. “I think she gets really confused. She wants to know where her friends are at. She can’t talk yet, but she communicates that with me through her actions. She’s been a little short-tempered.”

She added, “I don’t have the training either so sometimes, I don’t know what to do next. I’ve been YouTubing sign language and trying to teach her what I’ve been looking up at home.”

Jamie Oyler, Special Education Teacher for Dual Immersion Academy, explained that her biggest challenge since transitioning to complete online learning is attendance.

“A lot of our students have trouble with remembering their schedules and when they have to get on Zoom, particularly our junior high students who have classes at different times,” she said. “I’ve had to call parents to make sure they’re on their Zoom session. To be honest, that’s taken up more of my time than the actual specialized instruction lesson planning.”

Another challenge for some students with special needs is having to sit still for long periods of time in front of a screen. Teachers and parents said the experience is vastly different than physical interaction.

“When it’s time for school, it’s been really hard as far as concentration goes. Naela gets distracted very easily,” said Willie. “When her friends are there with her, she sees other kids do their homework and that helps her out.”

“Having a student sit down for as long as 30 minutes might be doable for a junior high student. Younger students may need that time split up into multiple sessions,” said Oyler.

She added, “A lot of our parents sometimes have to be right there with our younger population of students to give them verbal prompts and provide them with rewards when they do well. Explaining something on the computer to students who are aesthetic learners is different than when you can model it in person.”

However, Special Education Consulting Services (SPEDCO) Director Amy Trombetti said adaption, modification, and problem-solving are where their teachers thrive.

“I actually think this is where we may come out stronger because are used to doing this and it’s just continuing to help us think outside the box and how we can best support our kids,” she said.

Trombetti said strong practices that can help alleviate stressful situations at home are maintaining a consistent schedule, setting timers for breaks, allowing your family to grow at your own pace, and asking your children what works best for them.

“One of the things we really focus on in special education, even starting in kindergarten so it doesn’t matter what age your child, is teaching kids to be their own self-advocate,” she said. “If you are running into those difficult moments, you’re not reaching your students, or if you’re frustrated on both ends, ask the student what works best for them because that is something they are being taught on a daily basis.”

If you’re struggling, experts encourage reaching out to teachers who are equipped to provide techniques, resources, ideas, and tools to make the experience easier.

“We’re here for them. We care so deeply and we know it’s frustrating and we really want to be a partner in their child’s education,” said Trombetti. “If they can come to us and strengthen that relationship for the best interest of their child, it would be one of the best things to come out of this.”

For Willie, she said she’s just taking it one day at a time and enjoying the extra time with her daughter.

“Although her being home has been really hard, it’s been great for our relationship and connection. She’s more attached to me. We learn something new with each other everyday. Remain positive and find a routine. That’s what we’ve been doing,” she said. “If I have to do this until the end of the year, it won’t be ideal, but I will do whatever it takes for her well-being.”

As far as concerns about individualized education programs (IEPs), Trombetti said teachers will reassess data collected before and after school closures to determine what each student’s needs are. Any adjustments to minutes, services, schools, and accommodations will then be made accordingly.