American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2023      SCHOOL

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Lessons From the Pandemic: Research on the Experiences of Blind Students and Their Families

by Arielle Silverman

Arielle SilvermanFrom the Editor: The COVID-19 pandemic caused major disruptions in the education of K-12 students. Besides the stress of shattered routines and social isolation, blind and low-vision students faced some challenges beyond those experienced by their sighted peers. Arielle Silverman is Director of Research with the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). In this article she reports on a series of studies that AFB conducted to learn how the pandemic affected the education of blind and low-vision students.

We will probably always remember our personal milestones of March 2020: the last time we ate in a restaurant, the day we canceled our travel plans, and the odd shortages of toilet paper and milk in the grocery stores. During that fateful month, millions of schoolchildren left school for their regularly scheduled spring break. Some schools extended the break for an extra week, hoping that "the virus" would soon be under control. Instead, school campuses across the United States remained closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Many schools operated partially or fully online during the 2020-2021 school year as well.

At the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), we conduct original research to understand and describe the experiences of blind and low-vision individuals. When schools first closed in response to COVID-19, AFB researchers surveyed parents and teachers of blind children in the United States and Canada to learn about the impact of school closures upon blind children. Our team conducted a second survey with parents and teachers in November 2020; at that time, some students were attending schools in person with COVID safety protocols in place, while others were attending school partly or entirely online. Finally, in the summer and fall of 2021, we conducted focus groups with parents, teachers, and school administrators to learn about students' and teachers' experiences over the course of the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, we found that the sudden onset of pandemic closures created unique challenges for blind and low-vision children, their family members, and their teachers. For example, 81 percent of the teachers in our first survey reported that they had less than a week to prepare for the initial switch to online instruction, and 52 percent were unable to reach at least one family on their caseload. In the spring of 2020, some families reported losing blindness-related instructional services for their children. Other families chose to drop out of the education system "until COVID is over," particularly if they had no reliable access to high-speed internet.

Technology challenges were an ongoing theme in all three of our research studies. During online instruction, students were expected to use a variety of digital tools to access live lessons, interact with teachers and peers, and submit assignments. Many of the commonly used digital tools were partially or fully inaccessible for blind students. In November 2020, parents of school-age blind children in our survey reported that their children needed to use an average of 4.9 different digital tools to complete their work; on average, half of these tools were inaccessible. In addition to inaccessible software, Chromebooks presented frequent challenges. The screens were small and the built-in Chrome operating system did not allow the installation of a screen reader. Finally, even if the technology in use was accessible, some students did not have the requisite technical skills to use it without hands-on assistance from an adult.

In our later focus groups, parents described the impact of these technology challenges on their children. The mother of a twelve-year-old blind child explained that she had hoped to keep both her blind and sighted child home during the pandemic to minimize the risk of COVID transmission. However, because the online learning software was not accessible for her blind son, he ended up receiving hybrid instruction. She said, "It was frustrating that I couldn't protect my kids [from COVID] the way others could because of accessibility." Other parents told us that their middle- and high-school children were stressed to the point of tears because they had such frequent difficulties with their daily class assignments or because they could not fully participate with their peers in online games.

Over the course of the pandemic, many parents voiced concerns about their children's limited educational progress. Although instructional services generally had resumed by the fall of 2020, certain blindness-specific subjects were reportedly difficult to teach online, especially beginning Braille skills and orientation and mobility/cane travel skills. Furthermore, young children in early-intervention programs and preschool, as well as children of all ages who were deafblind or had cognitive disabilities, often struggled to access online instruction. Finally, some youth preparing to graduate from high school and those enrolled in postsecondary transition programs missed out on hands-on work-based learning experiences and community O&M training.

The pandemic also had complicated emotional impacts on families and educators. Some parents reported that their children felt lonely during lockdowns or anxious about contracting the virus. These children tended to become less social than they had been before the pandemic. Families were sometimes overwhelmed, especially if their children had complex medical needs and lost in-home support providers during lockdowns. Educators, too, reported stress from rapidly shifting and unpredictable schedules, infection concerns, and difficulties maintaining their students' educational progress.

Despite these obvious challenges, the pandemic also brought unexpected benefits for some students and families. Some students preferred the quiet routines of remote learning to the chaotic sensory environment of the classroom. Shorter school days allowed more time for students to develop their interests or to gain confidence and social skills while attending virtual events with other blind students. The unique demands of the pandemic offered students opportunities to build their technical and self-advocacy skills. For example, they were expected to email assignments to teachers.

Furthermore, parents appreciated having greater communication and coordination with their child's teachers and being more hands-on in their child's learning. The parent of a blind high-school student said, "A lot of parents drop kids off, and it's out of sight, out of mind. I loved being a fly on the wall, seeing how amazing and creative our teachers at [my child's school] were." Other parents told us that the pandemic gave them a window into the accessibility and educational gaps their children encountered. The parent of a high-school student explained, "The lack of tech training in mainstream tools was a big glaring hole for us that I didn't know was a hole, because in person she could successfully complete her work. Before I had to sit with her and see where she was struggling, I didn't know how to advocate well for that." After the schools re-opened, this parent advocated for her child to receive more technology training and in-class support.

The pandemic shed light on systemic issues and inequities in the education of blind children, such as the insufficient numbers of qualified teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs); the inaccessibility of digital learning tools; and the educational disadvantages faced by blind children with multiple disabilities and those who were English-language learners. After the challenges of the pandemic caused them to re-evaluate which placement was best for their children, some of the families who participated in our surveys chose to remove their blind children from the public schools. One parent, who decided to homeschool her young children during and after the pandemic, said, "I think overall I can make [my older child's] education a priority with homeschool. I saw how quickly my daughter's education dropped to a very low priority for the district when things shut down. When things get hard my kids are going to be among the first whose education gets dropped. Once you know that, it's hard to go back."

Pandemic school closures have now come to an end. The long-term impacts of the pandemic on students' educational trajectories are still undetermined. One thing is certain, though: digital tools are still being used in the classroom to supplement in-person instruction. It is critically important to ensure the accessibility of all digital learning tools for students with disabilities, including blind students. Educational technology developers, school procurement officials, and teachers all must collaborate to make this possible. Furthermore, there is an ongoing need for parent and student advocacy to ensure the full inclusion for blind students.

Following the release of our third research report on the educational impacts of the pandemic, the AFB research team created a series of free toolkits to assist teachers, school administrators, parents, and students to advocate for full inclusion in the classroom. Each toolkit shares findings from our research on the effects of digital inaccessibility during the pandemic. Then, each toolkit presents practical tips to help teachers incorporate inclusive practices into their instruction, for administrators to champion inclusive policies, and for parents and students to advocate with school leaders and legislators around their educational needs.

You can browse or download our toolkits at www.afb.org/digital-inclusion-toolkit. You can email the research group at [email protected].

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