The Malta Independent 18 May 2021, Tuesday

Malta’s silent children

Dayna Camilleri Clarke Sunday, 14 March 2021, 11:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

The term “vulnerable” is often associated with the elderly, yet many families have children who have had to adapt to a new life over the pandemic. Dayna Camilleri Clarke met with Carla Cutajar and her mother Madalene to discuss their experience.

While all children have had their learning impacted by Covid-19, 14-year-old Carla Cutajar remains one of the few children who hasn't attended school in a year. She hasn't seen her friends, participated in any dance classes, participated in any swimming lessons or maintained an important friendship social circle on Saturday mornings.

Carla's vulnerability secondary to Down Syndrome and a history of hospitalisations with pneumonia meant that once the pandemic came into full effect a year ago, her entire life and that of her family had to change quickly to keep her safe. "The doctors told us right away not to take any chances," explained her mother, Madalene Cutajar. "She's also too young for the vaccine age requirement of 16."

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"In the beginning, Carla took time to compose herself and learn not to be irritated without a lot of repetition to explain to her this abstract concept of Covid-19. Especially when we stopped going out during the weekend and stopped attending activities."

"We have had to go through a lot of changes to keep her safe.  Especially since we both work and, even more so, as I work in a school.  Consequently, we decided it would be best for Carla to live for a while with my mother, who is also vulnerable. We communicate in the morning by receiving a messenger call from Carla. In the evening we visit and have lunch at my mum's house.  Naturally, all the precautions of cleanliness are obeyed to avoid getting anything in the place."

When asked if Carla was sad about the change in households, Carla chimed, "No, actually, I don't miss home that much! I love living with my nanna!"

Her mother continued: "Carla was trying to intensify her life skills. We were focusing on independent skills like going shopping and checking the change, boarding a bus, and things like these. Because of Covid, all of these activities were stopped".

"Our biggest concern besides the virus is the social impact on Carla. She is very sociable; she likes to be in a group and be with friends. Of course, it's natural that over such a long time of not seeing them, relationships deteriorate, and friends call less and less," her mother explained.

Despite feeling sad about not seeing her friends, Carla remains positive and upbeat about the situation. "Everyone should listen to Charmaine tal-Covid, because we need to go back to school to be with our friends and teachers and participate in activities".

Carla and her mother are exceptionally grateful to her LSE's dedication, who has been instrumental to her academic success during this time, Miss Janet.

"We have been very fortunate because the school has been so accommodating and helpful in keeping Carla on track and providing online lessons every day. We are very grateful for this. Moreover, her aunt from her dad's side is a retired teacher, so we have academic support at home as well. Without her help, I do not know what we would do."

"Carla enjoys learning and takes this experience seriously. She is always punctual for her lessons. She does her homework and is never late in presenting her work. Carla studies for her tests and written assessments and does what she has to do without any hassle. She only complains about not being with her friends at school," her mother concluded.

There are also broader themes in the learning so far, which need to shape future policy and action in the wake of the pandemic. We must ensure engagement in finding solutions, both immediate and longer-term. We must acknowledge that not all children can work independently online and have support at home. Considerable research is showing that vulnerable children or those with added special educational needs are at risk of falling silent without societal involvement and additional support measures.

Finally, we need a universal commitment to the fundamental aim of greater equality and involvement for vulnerable children and teens like Carla. There have been campaigns for years for a legislative framework designed to remove disabling barriers and promote greater equality and inclusivity. Emphasising instead a narrower clinical category of 'underlying health conditions' diverts focus from that full and equal participation.

 

 


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