Local mom advocates for school districts to provide some in person therapy to students with high needs

It’s been seared in our memory, a 14-year-old autistic boy looking out the window for hours on end when the pandemic started shutting down the world.

Q13 News met  CJ Gibbs in April, now nearly 5 months later he is still looking out the same window.

 “We haven’t had any intervention, any help or anything, we’ve basically been in our apartment for 5 months,” CJ’s mom Natalie Gibbs said.

To understand the single mom’s anguish we have to take you back to the good days. When CJ could hold small conversations, could keep a routine, could smile with ease.

 Gibbs says COVID-19 stole the tremendous progress her son made over the years.

 Her son’s speech now is repetitious with no purpose, his behavior more restless and confused.

 “As far as how much I cry I am holding it back right now,” Gibbs said.

When she isn’t crying, Gibbs says she was begging educators at Franklin Pierce School District for any in-person speech or occupational therapy.

“Couple of hours per week, one on one in a classroom would be miles away from what we are receiving now,” Gibb said.

The Tacoma mom said she understands school districts can’t bring everyone back for the same amount of time but she says there have to be better options this fall for students with very high needs. She says virtual learning was impossible for CJ’s condition.

“If they can provide daycare for essential workers, they are exposed to the virus every day, then certainly they can come up with something,” Gibb said.

Q13 News took their story to the Special Education Advocates League.

 “The one thing a parent needs to know is that a parent has to put it in writing that their child cannot access services the way it’s set up virtual,” SEAL President Helen Caldart said.

Caldart said even under a pandemic, districts are required to find ways to honor the needs of a special education student. She acknowledges it’s tough for districts.

“What families don’t know, and what school districts honestly sometimes they don’t know either, is they can contract with an outside person, a group or organization to provide the services that’s on a student’s IEP,” Caldart said.

The non-profit says that could be one possible solution for school districts if they don’t have enough teachers willing to come back in person.

For Gibbs, the lack of one on one attention isn’t just a temporary set-back or financial burden, it's something that could have lasting impacts on the rest of CJ’s life.

“If this continues, my son will be living with me for the rest of my life, there is no hope of living on his own and being a contributing member of society,” Gibbs said.

At the time of Gibbs’ interview with Q13 News, she had no answer on whether the district was even considering in-person therapy.

But on Wednesday, Franklin Pierce School District says they are planning to possibly bring back some of the students with the greatest need. But they will first do a two week evaluation once school starts.

On Wednesday, John Sander the Executive Director for Learning Support Services for the district said he understood the hardships of families like Gibbs.

Currently, the district has around 8,000 students of which 1,100 are in special education.

Sander says 200 of the 1,100 have high needs.

The district recently did a survey with families of special needs kids and up to 35% said they do not feel comfortable with in person learning due to the virus.

But that also means the majority of those families do want some in person learning.