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Pandemic Profile: A Mother Of Two Sons With Autism Launches Special Ed Teaching Career Amid Pandemic

Leticia Avelar prepares to teach her virtual class from her home in El Cajon. Sept. 18, 2020
Joe Hong
Leticia Avelar prepares to teach her virtual class from her home in El Cajon. Sept. 18, 2020
A Mother Of Two Sons With Autism Launches Special Ed Teaching Career Amid Pandemic
Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

When Leticia Avelar’s older son Jonah was diagnosed with autism, his first special education teacher helped her navigate the complexities of the special education system. With the teacher’s help, Avelar was able to get the services Jonah needed.

The experience not only filled her with gratitude, but also opened her eyes to a new career.

“Once he was diagnosed, you kinda just get an initial diagnosis and they’re like, ‘OK, bye!’ For me, I knew there had to be more than that,” she said. “His first special education teacher guided me through the whole process. And I wanted to be that for somebody because I knew how important it was to have somebody on your corner.”

VIDEO: A Mother Of Two Sons With Autism Launches Special Ed Teaching Career Amid Pandemic

The now 30-year-old single mom never expected to become a teacher. But Jonah’s experiences led her to take a job in 2016 as a special education teacher’s aide.

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Four years later, she’s a newly credentialed special education teacher, teaching high schoolers. She says her journey has made her both a better teacher and better parent. Fate dealt her another twist by making it so she started her teaching career in the middle of a pandemic.

“The beginning was really hard. Especially with everything being shut down,” Avelar said, referring to the spring semester. “We were literally just stuck in there in a one bedroom apartment for probably two months. That was very difficult for all of us.”

In an ongoing series, KPBS takes a look at how San Diegans are coping during the coronavirus pandemic.

During the ensuing months, Avelar's frustrations mounted — both in terms of how online learning impacted her students and her own sons. Yet lately she’s found her groove.

She starts her day at 6:30 in the morning. She wakes up an hour before her two sons so she can lesson plan, catch up on emails or clean her house. When her sons wake up, she prepares breakfast and logs into her virtual classroom.

But life is still a challenge. While Avelar teaches high schoolers, her sons still need her attention as they attend Zoom classes.

“Transitioning back to working again is what’s making this difficult,” Avelar said. “As you can see I don’t have enough time to entertain one while I’m doing this, while I’m doing that.”

She said her sons are getting better at adapting. While Avelar is teaching, Jonah and Dez play video games or with their toys. They also have their own Zoom classes.

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Avelar said her older son Jonah hasn’t fallen behind academically. Her younger son Dez is having a harder time with reading and adjusting to the new schedule.

“He’s having a little bit of a hard time getting back into the school routine of being online and seeing his teachers, and it’s still very hard for him,” she said. “He’s having difficulties.”

Both Jonah and Dez are getting speech therapy services, and Avelar said they’re getting better at distance learning. When their classes are over, she spends the rest of the day preparing lessons or helping her sons with their school work.

She’s also studying to get her master’s degree in special education and often goes to bed at 2 a.m.

“There’s not enough me’s," she said. "I feel like I’m not doing enough on their end, sometimes I feel like I’m not doing enough on the teaching end. I always end the day like what more could I have done but then what more can I possibly do?”