American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: COVID and Beyond     REMOTE TEACHING

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Back Up Six Feet: Providing Access during a Pandemic

by Janna Kowalik

Janna KowalikFrom the Editor: What is it like to teach blind and low-vision students during the COVID-19 pandemic? In this article a teacher offers a glimpse into the day-to-day challenges teachers face. Janna Kowalik teaches blind and low-vision students in Yolo County, California.

On a typical morning I log into Google Classroom and connect with some of my students. I share educational YouTube videos and direct my students to assignments I've created for them on topics such as self-advocacy and ZoomText key commands.

"Do you want me to share my screen?" asks one student. "Can I start a jam board?" another asks excitedly.

When the pandemic hit, the schools in my county took two weeks off before beginning online classes. That break gave TVIs two weeks to determine how best to support our students virtually, something most of us had never done before.

My most immediate challenge was to make the curriculum accessible for my students. During in-person school, access to the curriculum is highly individualized. Each student has a different set of skills and different areas of need. This situation was probably the only thing about teaching that hasn't changed during the pandemic. When teaching became virtual each student had a unique set of requirements when gaining access to the online curriculum. Some of my students were already quite tech savvy. Others were more accustomed to using pencil and paper or the Perkins Brailler and paper.

Even my technologically inclined students faced new difficulties. In my county Chromebooks became ubiquitous during the pandemic due to their low cost. Every child was provided with their own Chromebook. They were encouraged to use their Chromebooks for virtual classwork rather than working with a home device such as a laptop. It was a one-size-fits-all solution that did not fit for most of my students.

Chromebooks cannot run software such as JAWS or ZoomText, and they usually have small screens that make viewing difficult for students with low vision. Some of my low-vision students had used Chromebooks intermittently before the pandemic. Now that they were expected to use them all day, however, it was clear that a new solution was needed.

Hand in hand with the Chromebooks came Google Classroom. Every class was being taught via Google Classroom, and assignments were presented in Google formats, usually Google Slides, Google Forms, or Google Docs. This, too, posed problems for many of my students. Depending on the device and the software available, these formats are not always accessible for blind and low-vision students.

The solutions, like the challenges, were varied and individual. I made sure that each of my students had an accessible device with which they could access their classes. For many this consisted of a fifteen-inch touch-screen laptop with the appropriate software. Many of my students already had laptops, but some, especially the younger ones, did not have laptops until virtual learning made it necessary. One student prefers to use an iPad with Voiceover. One uses a BrailleSense Polaris in conjunction with a laptop equipped with Fusion software.

To ensure one student's access to a Spanish class, I emailed voice memos of Spanish listening assignments and dropped off parcels of Braille Spanish vocabulary at the student's door. I have made weekly home visits to some students to drop off large-print copies of textbooks and novels. I asked classroom teachers to add me as a teacher in their Google Classrooms so I could check out upcoming assignments and adapt them as needed for my students. For some students, that entailed downloading assignments and converting them to an accessible format. For others I created a copy of the Google Doc or slide and increased the font size and enlarged images. Then I assigned the copy to my student specifically. Once I became familiar with these processes, I trained paraeducators to do them as well.

Though the pandemic posed huge hurdles for me and for my students, I began to notice some positive side effects of virtual learning. It comes as no surprise that my students became far more technologically savvy during the past year. I've witnessed my students chat casually about file formats and troubleshoot their teachers' tech problems in virtual class.

Another outcome of the pandemic has been the increased accountability for classroom teachers. Unless materials were made accessible ahead of time, visually impaired students faced a new level of exclusion. Gone were the days when material could be read aloud to a student in a pinch, or when a student could step out into the hall with a paraeducator to complete a last-minute assignment orally. Classroom teachers understood this, and they were willing to collaborate with me to ensure that assignments were accessible in advance.

The lack of in-person adult intervention also resulted in increased independence for my students. For the past year none of my students has had a teacher or paraeducator nearby, ready to swoop in at the first sign of trouble. Students are problem-solving their own access issues and advocating for themselves in new ways. When an accessibility issue comes up, my students are emailing teachers, sending messages via Google Classroom, and requesting breakout rooms during virtual lessons. Students who were less than enthusiastic about using accessible formats such as Braille or audio during in-person school are using them consistently now. They realize that, during virtual learning, there is no other option.

As we return to in-person learning, it is my hope that TVIs, classroom teachers, and students can hold onto the gains we've made during the pandemic. I want to maintain and build upon the level of access my students have experienced this year. I want ongoing collaboration with IEP teams to make sure that access continues. And, when all my students are back in person, I want the adults around them to back up six feet and continue to let them solve problems for themselves!

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