Developmentally disabled kids in San Jose left behind amid COVID-19
An empty classroom with chairs up on the desks. Image courtesy Wikicommons

Access to a COVID-19 vaccine may be the first step to getting students back on campus, but youth are in the back of the line for vaccines in California.

That’s especially tough for students with special needs and developmental disabilities for whom distance learning is not conducive. For these students, online education halts months of learned social skills and interaction, a coronavirus infection could be deadly and sensory issues make it more difficult to wear masks.

“I have a 92-year-old mom in an assisted living facility and two kids who are autistic, so everyone wants the vaccine first,” said South Bay resident Christopher Escher, whose daughter is 15 and son is 21. “We just want to make sure people understand these are special-needs kids and the inability to go to school and get services has been hard on this group and hard on the families.”

Their age puts them in a lower priority group. People with developmental disabilities younger than 65 currently do not qualify for a COVID-19 vaccine under state guidelines.

By March 15, vaccine access will expand to people 16-64 with diseases or disabilities that raise the risk of dying from COVID-19.

Escher’s children attend Morgan Autism Center in San Jose, a school with specialized classes for students with developmental disabilities.

The new guidelines do not outline autism as a specific disability that would allow children to receive the vaccine. Those with developmental disabilities are eligible for a vaccine if they’re likely to develop severe life-threatening illness or death from COVID-19 infection or if getting care for the virus will be challenging because of the infection or their disability.

Although many of the students attending Morgan Autism Center are in their early teens or 20s, they face a higher chance of death with a COVID-19 infection. Children with developmental disabilities are three times more likely to die of COVID-19, according to a study by FAIR Health and John Hopkins University.

But remaining home for safety has its costs as well.

Each student at Morgan Autism Center receives one-to-one support from a teacher to learn social and behavioral skills. However, many students have regressed under remote learning after stay-at-home orders halted in-person classes, said the center’s Executive Director Brad Boardman.

“When you take that child and you put them at home where maybe both parents are working their jobs from home and don’t have the bandwidth to be there to make distance learning happen, it’s problematic,” Boardman said.

Although some students do well with remote learning, he said about 30% of his 120 students are not participating in a meaningful way.

“They need support that’s just not there,” Boardman said.

Boardman said some students were ecstatic to be back on the campus under a pilot program but said he does not anticipate an immediate return for all students anytime soon.

Tomara Hall, a special education teacher at Dartmouth Middle School in San Jose, said if her students could return to classes after being vaccinated, schools could find ways to allow safe social interaction beyond Zoom.

But, even if access to vaccines is expanded to students younger than 16, it will not be an immediate return to normal.

“If we come back in the fall, we should expect masks, following the rules,” Hall said. “For us as a middle school, we’re getting an influx of students that come from different channels, so it’s new germs, new people.”

Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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