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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Children with disabilities face special back-to-school challenges

Christopher Manzo, a boy with curly brown hair and bright blue and yellow glasses, has lived a third of his five years at home due to the pandemic.

And he’s more than ready for kindergarten.

Hand in hand with his mother Martha Manzo, he walks to the Center for Blind Children, a low-rise building nestled among residential complexes in East Hollywood. In a brightly painted hallway filled with animal prints, Manzo kneels down to hug Christopher before he hesitates to his cubbyhole.

“God will take care of you and be with you,” she says. “And have fun.”

Born with congenital hydrocephalus, which damaged his brain and resulted in severe visual impairment, cognitive difficulties and lack of coordination, Christopher has only been out of school for the past 18 months – he has missed many vital occupational, physical and language treatments. as well as communication with other children.

At home, Christopher was unable to stare at a computer screen long enough to attend treatments or Zoom classes, Manzano said in an interview conducted in Spanish. “He strained his eyes, looked away, and his attention dropped,” she said. “He couldn’t pay as much attention as a child without a disability.”

Christopher “could have made significant headway” after the pandemic if he hadn’t missed so many schools, said Manzano, 36, who has three more children, ages 12, 10 and 8, who she also had to take care of for several years. months. home schooling.

Christopher Manzo was born with congenital hydrocephalus, severe visual impairment, cognitive problems, and loss of coordination. He underwent five operations, and they were all related to his diagnosis. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

However, returning to school raises particular health concerns for Christopher and other children with disabilities who are at increased risk of serious attacks of COVID-19, said his pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Dr. Lisa McIntosh. Although he is not immunosuppressed, she says, Christopher has trouble coughing up secretions, making him vulnerable to lung and respiratory infections.

Compared to other adults who come into contact with children, she said, his parents, teachers and therapists “need to be more vigilant about wearing masks, hand hygiene and social distancing.”

In short, Manzo was deeply concerned about the coronavirus threat that Christopher faced at school. But she felt that it was a risk that he could no longer avoid in order to get on with his life.

“It was very difficult for him to study at home,” said Manzo. “He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t go to school, to the park, or to therapy.”

“I know the covid is still among us, but I also can’t keep it at home like it’s a crystal bubble and protect it,” she said. “He needs contact with other children and teachers.”

The challenges Christopher faced during the pandemic were shared by many of the approximately 7 million children and young people in the United States, ages 3-21, with special needs. Online platforms usually don’t work for them. For example, Christopher needs to feel the Braille letters in order to read – he cannot do this on a computer screen.

Students with disabilities experienced “a kind of double whammy where it was very difficult to access school services and it was very difficult to keep working on developing new skills,” said Dr. Irene Kolwijk, Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics Specialist at UCLA Health.

It took a lot of preparation to get Christopher and about 40 other children attending the Center for the Blind back to a private school that runs from babies to kindergarten. All children are blind or visually impaired, and most also have disorders ranging from autism and albinism to cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Reverse mainstreaming is practiced in the school, with several children with typical development sharing a class with children with disabilities.

A few months before the school doors opened again, the center began teaching students how to wear masks.

“Gradually, we started teaching kids to wear masks on Zoom. It all started with one song, then two songs, ”said Rosalinda Mendiola, adaptation services specialist at the Center for Blind Children. “Our goal was that by the time we opened up they were used to them.”

But it was difficult. Many children with special needs find it difficult to wear masks and understand the concept of distancing, McIntosh said. In particular, children with some forms of autism have sensory problems that make their faces look tiring.

“Children learn most from modeling. They watch over their parents, teachers, friends, ”said Bianca Sibrant, director of the early childhood education center. “But blind and visually impaired children do not see the mask. This is probably one of the biggest obstacles. “

Children With Disabilities Face Special Back-To-School Challenges
Blind or visually impaired children like Christopher rely on tactile teaching materials. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

It took Christopher seven months to start wearing the mask. “At first, he didn’t even want it to be right in front of his face,” Manzo said. “He slowly began to accept it when he saw that his brothers and sisters were wearing it.”

To open in September, the school also adopted new COVID security protocols. All 30 staff members are vaccinated, temperature checks are carried out upon disembarkation, and parents are not allowed into classrooms.

All students wear masks, with the exception of three of them, who have limited motor ability and cannot safely remove the mask or do not understand the process of wearing the mask, “and therefore it becomes sensory overload and behavioral disturbance,” Sibrant said.

Each class has six children under the supervision of a teacher and two assistants. Christopher needs someone close to him to remind him where to go and hold on to the railing for balance.

With so many staff, “creating a protective cover of vaccinated people around the child is essential to make the transition to school as safe as possible,” said Dr. Christine Bottrell Mirzayan, 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 very important so that we can continue to take care of it,” said Marta Manzo.

Christopher wore a teddy bear mask and Ryan’s World backpack on a recent Wednesday. This is his last year at the center. When he started, he was only 2 years old and never learned to walk.

“They helped him a lot,” Manzo said. “His movement and communication skills have improved.”

Christopher walks around the playground during recess and greets his friends in a swing. “His balance is out of balance, but he is walking now,” his mother said. “I’ve always wanted to see him run and explore.”

School staff were happy to bring their students back.

“We all felt this little warmth in our heart when we heard their voices in the hallway, be it crying, laughing or talking to their friends,” Sibrant said. “This is what we were waiting for to hear those moments.”

Children With Disabilities Face Special Back-To-School Challenges

World Nation News Desk
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