How Visually Impaired Students Are Navigating The Pandemic

Monday, March 23rd 2020

In the last few weeks, most people have gotten pretty well-versed on some standard Covid-19 rules: don’t touch your face, wash your hands often and be careful about what you put your hands on if you’re out in public (also: try to not be out in public). But what if feeling things is your primary way of moving around? What if you read by touch? Questions like these mean the blind and visually impaired community have difficult barriers to overcome when it comes to Covid-19. Judy Maggio spoke with Emily Coleman, superintendent of the Texas School For The Blind And Visually Impaired, about how they’re supporting students and staff during the outbreak.

Judy Maggio: Emily, this is an interesting population because there are different challenges when it comes to social distancing, and the way life goes on at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. First of all, are you guys on spring break right now?

Emily Coleman: We are on spring break, but we've also extended it like most districts through at least April 3rd.

JM: I know that there are probably protocols in place because your students come in and out of the school, they're from all over the state, right?

EC: That's correct. We have students that come in via charter bus, or plane every weekend when we're in session from all over the state, so we have a unique population that we have to look at what's happening in our community, but also, what's happening in our students' communities and thinking about travel, as well.

JM: So how does Covid-19, in general, impact how you are going to be doing business when the kids come back to class, hopefully, later this spring?

EC: We, I guess, we're all sorting this out. Our kids practice the normal hygiene, and our staff, like everybody else, the handwashing, the Purell, they have cane grips that they have to keep clean because they always have, those are with them at all times, but also, we have a lot of students that require direct instruction, which is hands-on learning, that, especially our deaf and blind population, that may use tactile sign language, and so, the social distancing, for them, isn't a possibility, so we have to really emphasize some of the other strategies to mitigate the spread of illness.

JM: I guess that would mean making sure staff, who will be doing that signing and working with the students who are both visually impaired and have hearing issues would be cleaning their hands extra vigilantly, and things like that?

EC: Yeah, yeah, I mean, we would, I guess we would have to work through all of that, but that's exactly the case. Really being mindful of if you're sick, or potentially exposed, or someone in your household, absolutely do not come in, so a lot of things like that, to make sure that our kids would still be able to receive instruction when they came back.

JM: What about the resources you provide? I mean, when students are away from the school, they don't have access to those resources because I know that you guys do so much to encourage the students to live independently, and give them those skills, so how are they gonna resource some of those skills when they're not at the school?

EC: Yeah, that's the challenge I think all of our districts are facing right now is, how do we provide some instructional support, and also, social support to our students when they're in isolation? There are over 11,000 students in Texas identified with some level of visual impairment. We're a resource to all of them.

We have our campus kids that we'll be providing some really specific instruction, whether it's low-tech, or high-tech, or talking to families, sending things home, providing online resources, but we're also available to all the other kids in Texas that don't attend school here, and have a lot of teachers ramping up to provide some social distance, not social distance, but distance learning opportunities for them, as well, and resources for teachers.

We're going to be putting together a lot of online training for professional development for teachers during this time, specific to our population, but the most important thing is, we wanna make sure that families can stay connected, their students, their children can stay connected, and that they have some social opportunities, as well, to reach out to their classmates, and their teachers. Our kids have varying levels of disabilities, and many of them have multiple disabilities, and so, they really need routine, and we're hoping as a school that we can provide that level of support for our families during this unique time.

JM: So very much like so many people are doing, a lot of things are going online, and it sounds like you already have a system in place to reach out to families who don't have students on campus. Is that right?

EC: That's right. We have multiple programs here that work with students across Texas all the time, and teachers, and so, even though our staff are on spring break right now, I've been so proud of how many people are actually working, and coming up with plans so that Monday, come Monday when we're providing something for our kids, it's gonna be, we don't really know how it's gonna go, and we're gonna work through it, but in the meantime, we're just available, so if anybody, if our kids need to reach out, or any other teachers, we're finding some level of support for everybody.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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