Martha Manzo drops off her son Christopher at her school, the Blind Children’s Center, in the East Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. The center is a free nursery school for blind and visually impaired children. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)
LOS ANGELES – Christopher Manzo, a boy with curly brown hair and bright blue and yellow glasses, has lived a third of his five years at home because of the pandemic.
And he’s more than ready for kindergarten.
Hand in hand with his mother, Martha Manzo, he walks into the Blind Children’s Center, a low-rise building nestled among apartment complexes in East Hollywood. In the brightly colored hallway filled with animal paintings, Manzo kneels down to hug Christopher before staggering over to his locker.
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“May God take care of you and be with you,” she said. “Have fun.”
Born with congenital hydrocephalus that damaged his brain and left him with severely impaired vision, cognitive difficulties and poor coordination, Christopher hasn’t just skipped school for the past 18 months – he’s missed a host of vital professional, physical and language therapies, as well as socialization with other children.
At home, Christopher couldn’t stare at a computer screen long enough to attend therapy or Zoom classes, Manzano said in an interview conducted in Spanish. “He would tire his eyes, look away and his attention would falter,” she said. “He couldn’t give the same attention as a child without a disability.
Christopher “could have done a lot more” since the pandemic hit if he hadn’t skipped so much school, said Manzano, who is 36 and has three other children, ages 12, 10 and 8, said. that she also had to guide for months of home schooling.
Still, going back to school poses particular health concerns for Christopher and other children with disabilities who are at increased risk for severe episodes of COVID-19, his pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles said, Dr. Liza Mackintosh. Although he is not immunocompromised, Christopher has difficulty coughing up secretions, which makes him vulnerable to lung and respiratory infections, she said.
Compared to other adults in contact with children, her parents, teachers and therapists “need to be more vigilant about mask wear, hand hygiene and social distancing,” she said.
In short, Manzo was deeply concerned about the threat of COVID-19 exposure that Christopher was facing at school. But it was a risk she felt he could no longer avoid, to continue with her life.
Trying to learn from home was “very difficult for him,” said Manzo. “He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t go to school, to the park or to his therapies.
“I know COVID is still with us, but neither can I keep it at home like it’s a crystal bubble and protect it,” she said. “He needs contact with other children and his teachers.”
The challenges Christopher faced during the pandemic were shared by many 7 million U.S. children and young adults, ages 3 to 21, with special needs. Online platforms generally does not work for them. For example, Christopher needs to smell braille letters to read them – he can’t do that on a computer screen.
Students with disabilities had “sort of that double blow where it was very difficult to access school services and very difficult to continue working on developing new skills,” said Developmental Pediatrics Specialist Dr Irene Koolwijk. behavioral at UCLA Health.
It took a lot of preparation for Christopher and the 40 or so other children attending the Center for Blind Children to return to the private school building from kindergarten to kindergarten. All children are blind or visually impaired, and most also suffer from conditions ranging from autism and albinism to cerebral palsy and epilepsy. The school practices reverse integration, in which a few children with typical development share the classroom with children with disabilities.
Months before the school’s doors reopened, the center began teaching students to wear masks.
“Little by little, we started to train children to wear masks on Zoom. It started with the duration of one song, then two songs, ”said Rosalinda Mendiola, adjustment services specialist at the Center for Blind Children. “Our goal was that by the time we reopened, they would be used to them.”
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 issues that make it embarrassing to have anything on their face.
“Children learn the most from modeling. They watch their parents, their teachers, their friends, ”said Bianca Ciebrant, director of early childhood education at the center. “But visually impaired and blind children cannot see the mask being worn. This is probably one of the most difficult obstacles.
It took Christopher seven months to start wearing a mask. “At first he didn’t even want it in front of his face,” Manzo said. “He slowly started to accept it when he saw his siblings wearing it.”
To reopen in September, the school also adopted new COVID-19 safety protocols. All 30 staff are vaccinated, temperature checks are carried out at the time of drop-off, and parents are not allowed into classrooms.
All the students wear masks except for three of them who have limited motor skills and cannot safely remove a mask or do not understand the process of wearing the mask “and so it becomes overload sensory and behavioral breakdown, ”Ciebrant said.
There are six children in each class, supervised by a teacher and two assistants. Christopher needs someone close to him to remind him where to walk and to hold onto the handrail to keep his balance.
With so many staff members, “building a shield of vaccinated individuals around the child is important to making the transition back to school as safe as possible,” said Dr Christine Bottrell Mirzaian, pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.
Martha and her husband, Fausto Manzo, were vaccinated last March, and their 12-year-old daughter, Samantha, has also been immune to COVID-19.
“Our health is important so that we can continue to take care of him,” said Martha Manzo.
On a recent Wednesday, Christopher wore a teddy bear mask and a Ryan’s world backpack to school. This is his last year at the center. When he started he was only 2 years old and hadn’t learned to walk.
“He got a lot of help,” Manzo said. “His movements have improved and his communication skills have improved.”
Christopher walks around the playground during recess and waves to his friends. “His balance is disturbed, but he is walking now,” his mother said. “I always wanted to see him run and explore.”
School staff were happy to see their students.
“We all felt that little warmth in our hearts to hear their voices in the hallway, whether it was crying, laughing or talking to their friends,” Ciebrant said. “This is what we expected, to hear these moments.”