Fears of falling behind: Parents seek in-person instruction for students with special needs

With the first day of school in Olympia less than a week away, some parents are struggling to get the answers they need for their students with special needs.

As Olympia School District gets ready to start the school year with full-time distance learning, the Holzmeister family fears their four school-age kids, who all benefit from special education services, will fall behind.

With five kids under one roof, it’s a full house at the Holzmeisters. The blended family moved to Olympia from the Centralia area shortly before the pandemic pulled the kids out of the classroom in spring. It was the second school disruption in as many months, and the family struggled with technology issues and frustration to round out the rest of the school year.

Now, heading into a full school year with full-time online learning, the parents are struggling for answers from the school district when it comes to helping their four students navigate distance learning when all depend on individual, in-person instruction to succeed in school. 

Joseph Holzmeister is particularly concerned about his oldest son, Nathanial, who is an incoming senior at Olympia High School. 

“He depends on going to school to get that extra help from the school the teachers,” Joseph Holzmeister said. “If he gets upset to where he can’t handle it, they have strategies to help him. We’re doing as best as we can at home, we really are, but he’s getting frustrated and I’m getting frustrated. We’re out of answers, we need answers.”

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The four oldest kids range from entering sixth grade at Washington Middle School to Nathanial, the senior. The fifth child, 4-year-old Aaliyah, is spared from school for now.

“It’s gotten boring for them, they’re bored,” Ashley Holzmeister said. “To try to keep five kids entertained, it’s hard, it is hard.”

With Ashley Holzmeister gone most of the day working full time as a hotel housekeeper, Joseph Holzmeister is the one at home running interference during school. 

“I’ve got two kids out there [in the living room], two kids in the rooms, I’m back and forth all the time trying to help everybody out as much as possible,” Joseph Holzmeister said.

Both parents feel limited in their ability to help teach their four students with special education needs, in part because neither one of them finished high school. 

“I feel crappy when I don’t know half the things that they ask me, that I can’t help them as a parent,” Ashley Holzmeister said. “We didn’t graduate but I want to make sure every single one of my kids graduates.”

“I want my kids to be better than what I ever could be, that’s what every parent wants,” Joseph Holzmeister said. “I’m scared for my children, I’m scared they’re not going to get the education that they need to graduate to move on with their life and be productive people in society.”

Joseph Holzmeister said their family takes the pandemic very seriously and that safety is the first priority in their household, but education is second and he’d like to see the district find a way to get some students in the classroom, where they can receive one-on-one attention. 

“It’s difficult when I don’t understand a lot of things,” Nathanial said of online learning. “I wish I was back in school.”

Nathanial has dreams of being the first in his family to graduate high school and plans to join the Army, but said that he tends to get frustrated with distance learning and finds himself walking away from the computer a lot. He said he’s worried the distance-learning environment will delay his ability to graduate.

While Olympia School District announced full-time distance learning to start the school year, county health officials recently gave the district permission to consider in-person instruction for groups of no more than five students. 

After completing negotiations with the teachers union, the school district told Q13 News they immediately started seeking voluntary in-person teachers and said the response has been encouraging.

With roughly 1,680 district students with individual educational plans, or IEPs, the district said the first priority will go to students who have the hardest time engaging with online learning. The district said it will start reaching out to families this week who have students in the Developmental Learning Classroom Program and Life Skills Program.

The district said they are hopeful the pieces will fall into place ‘as soon as possible’ to allow for some in-person instruction. The Holzmeisters are hopeful they’ll be among those getting the call.