Parents heartbreakingly watch their special needs children unravel during COVID-19 school closures

TACOMA -- Parents and teachers across the state are struggling to cope with the new realities now that school has been canceled for the rest of this school year.

Those challenges are amplified for parents with special education kids, like Natalie Gibbs of Tacoma.

Her husband passed away more than a decade ago so she’s been alone raising her son CJ who is autistic and mostly non-verbal. Natalie says special education teachers at Franklin Pierce School District have done wonders for her son this year but in just weeks of no school she is watching her son unravel.

Every weekday 14 year-old CJ and Natalie walk out of their apartment in Tacoma to a school bus waiting to give them food.

It’s the highlight of CJ’s day and for that brief moment, his mom can smile.

“Being home 24-7 we are losing track of night and day what days of the week,” Natalie said.

With COVID-19 ending the school year early, there is collective grief as we process an unbelievable situation.

But for parents with special needs children, even temporary isolation could mean long term impacts

“He is basically caged in this apartment, my little boy is slipping inside himself and it’s because the special education classes they do so much therapeutically,” Gibbs said.

CJ spends much of his days now looking out the window and it’s heartbreaking for Natalie to watch.

“He’s been playing sad sad clips people saying goodbye to friends, wailing and crying every night, so sad,” Gibb said.

There are no easy solutions to make that sadness go away.

“They are not alone it’s something we are all experiencing those families in particular,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said.

Reykdal says the state is challenging all school districts to build a plan for each kid.

What that plan looks like will come down to each district.  Reykdal says it’s important that parents are asking questions too.

“What services that are available to me and what’s the timing that’s an appropriate question to be asking right now,” Reykdal said.

Natalie says teachers at Keithley Middle School are in constant communication.

“Everyone in the district is doing everything they possibly can and I do realize that,” Natalie said.

But she says there is only so much remote learning that her son can do effectively.

“I have a telephone appointment, standing appointment with my therapist, every Thursday and I break down 3 or 4 times a day. I do, I try to stay as positive as I can, this is tough,” Natalie said.

Natalie was hoping there would be some exception for special needs kids to come to school to get some limited social interaction. But Reykdal says that may not be feasible for school districts right now.

One thing is for sure the pandemic moving forward is going to change the way we think about education and how we come up with resources. Natalie wants the state to put special education students at the forefront of those changes.