LOS ANGELES – Christopher Manzo, a boy with curly brown hair and light blue and yellow glasses, lived at home for a third of his five years because of the pandemic.
And he’s more than ready for kindergarten.
Hand in hand with his mother Martha Manzo, he enters the Blind Children’s Center, a low-rise building in the middle of apartment complexes in East Hollywood. In the brightly colored hallway full of pictures of animals, Manzo kneels to hug Christopher before he hurries uncertainly to his storage room.
“God takes care of you and is with you,” she says. “And have fun.”
Christopher was born with congenital hydrocephalus that damaged his brain, leaving him with severe visual disturbances, cognitive difficulties, and incoordination, as well as socializing with other children.
At home, Christopher couldn’t look at a computer screen long enough to take therapy or classes on Zoom, Manzano said in an interview conducted in Spanish. “He would strain his eyes, look away, and his attention would wane,” she said. “He couldn’t give himself the same attention as a child without disabilities.”
Christopher “could have come a lot since the pandemic broke out” if he hadn’t missed so much school, said Manzano, who is 36 and has three other children, ages 12, 10 and 8, who she also had to lead through months of home schooling.
However, returning to school poses particular health problems for Christopher and other children with disabilities who are at increased risk of severe Covid-19 attacks, his pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles said. Dr. Liza Mackintosh. Although he’s not immunocompromised, Christopher has problems coughing up secretions, making him prone to lung and respiratory infections, she said.
Compared to other adults who have had contact with children, his parents, teachers, and therapists “need to be careful about wearing masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing,” she said.
In short, Manzo was deeply concerned about the risk of Covid exposure that Christopher was exposed to at school. But it was a risk that, in her opinion, he could no longer avoid in order to get on with his life.
Trying to learn from home is “really difficult for him,” said Manzo. “He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t go to school or the park or his therapies.”
“I know Covid is still with us, but I also can’t keep it at home and protect it like a crystal bubble,” she said. “He needs contact with other children and his teachers.”
The challenges Christopher faced during the pandemic were shared by many of the gross 7 million US children and young adults ages 3 to 21 with special needs. Online platforms as a rule don’t work for her. For example, Christopher has to feel Braille letters to read them – he can’t do that on a computer screen.
Students with disabilities “had a kind of double punch where it was very difficult to get access to school services and it was very difficult to keep working on developing new skills,” said Dr. Irene Koolwijk, specialist in developmental pediatrics at UCLA Health.
It took a lot of preparations to get Christopher and the 40 other children from the center for blind children back into the building of the private kindergarten school. All children are blind or visually impaired, and most also have disorders that range from autism and albinism to cerebral palsy and epilepsy. School practices reverse mainstreaming where some typically developing children share the classroom with children with disabilities.
Months before the school doors reopened, the center began teaching students to wear masks.
“Little by little, we started teaching the kids at Zoom to wear masks. It started with the duration of one song, then two songs, ”said Rosalinda Mendiola, specialist in adaptive services at the Blind Children’s Center. “Our goal was for them to get used to it by the time it reopened.”
But it was difficult. Many children with special needs find it difficult to wear their masks and understand the concept of distancing, Mackintosh said. Children with some forms of autism in particular have sensory problems that make it a nuisance to have something on their face.
“Children learn most from modeling. They watch their parents, their teachers, their friends, ”says Bianca Ciebrant, director of early childhood education at the center. “But visually impaired and blind children cannot see the mask being worn. That’s probably one of the harder barriers. “
It took Christopher seven months to wear a mask. “At first he didn’t even want it in front of his face,” said Manzo. “He slowly started to accept it when he saw his siblings wearing it.”
To reopen in September, the school also adopted new Covid security protocols. All 30 employees are vaccinated, temperature controls are carried out upon delivery and parents are not allowed to enter the classrooms.
All students wear masks, with the exception of three of them, who have impaired motor skills and cannot safely remove a mask or understand the process of wearing the mask, “and therefore, there is overstimulation and behavioral breakdown,” said Ciebrant.
There are six children in each class, who are looked after by a teacher and two assistants. Christopher needs someone close to remind him where to go and to hold on to the railing to keep his balance.
With so many employees, “it is important to create a shield of vaccinated individuals around the child to make the transition back to school as safe as possible,” said Dr. Christine Bottrell Mirzaian, pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Martha and her husband Fausto Manzo were vaccinated last March, and their 12-year-old daughter Samantha was also vaccinated against Covid.
“Our health is important so that we can continue to take care of him,” said Martha Manzo.
On a Wednesday, Christopher was wearing a teddy bear mask and a Ryan’s world Backpack to school. This is his last year in the center. When he started he was only 2 years old and hadn’t learned to walk yet.
“He got a lot of help,” said Manzo. “His movements have improved and his communication skills have improved.”
Christopher pats around in the playground during the break and greets his friends with a wave. “His balance is out of whack, but he’s running now,” said his mother. “I always wanted to see him run and explore.”
The school staff were happy to have their students back.
“We all felt this little warmth in our hearts when we heard their voices in the hallway, be it crying or laughing or talking to their friends,” said Ciebrant. “This is what we’ve been waiting for to hear these moments.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health topics. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three main operational programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit foundation that provides the country with information on health issues.
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