As AFB continues its work to protect the rights of blind and low vision students during the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) and orientation and mobility (O&M) instructors to share their experiences, from what has worked for them to where their concerns lie in the education of our students with visual impairments.

The following stories are being shared with the participants’ permission. The is the second of two posts; read the first here.

Paul Olson is president of the Council of Schools and Services for the Blind and is the Superintendent for the North Dakota Vision Services/School for the Blind.

Paul finds himself in the position of ensuring that students with visual impairments throughout North Dakota continue to receive high quality instruction. At the same time, as the president of a national organization, he is working closely with schools and agencies throughout the country serving both children and adults with visual impairments.

Paul is proud of the teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) and orientation and mobility (O&M) instructors in his state. “Staff has really stretched themselves for families,” he says.

The staff who work with Paul also work well with the 15 or so TVIs employed by the larger school districts. “Our goal is to advocate for every community to have the appropriate number of TVIs,” Paul says. “We’re there to be a resource to districts which don’t have TVIs and to support districts that do have TVIs.”

The state of North Dakota faces its own logistical hurdles. There are a dozen TVIs. Six are regional coordinators and the other six work out of the main campus going out to districts to provide support in assistive technology, O&M instruction, and daily living skills instruction, among other things. Only three of the 12 TVIs are certified in O&M.

Paul notes that the number of children with cortical visual impairment (CVI) has increased in North Dakota, as is the trend nationwide. Staff have sought additional training, learned to do complex assessments, and are leading the way in designing interventions for North Dakota’s children with CVI.

“Districts will pull us in to do things they don’t have expertise in, and our TVIs make sure the materials are adapted to meet the needs of each student,” he says.

According to Paul, for smaller communities, the North Dakota Services/Schools for the Blind staff offer short-term programming to target areas of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC). The ECC is a framework of nine areas unique to the success of students with visual impairments. Most students need targeted instruction in multiple areas to develop all the skills necessary to succeed in all aspects of their lives. Typically students come to the school for week-long programs several weeks a year. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Paul’s staff is needing to be creative in how they’ll deliver the remaining short-term programs.

“North Dakota being as rural as it is, for the most part has good broadband coverage statewide,” Paul says. “Our governor is very heavy into technology for our schools. Where there have been gaps – for example in a district of 3000 students, there were 100 households that did not have internet access – we were able to set up hotspots.”

Paul says they mainly use Zoom for meeting with families, students, and educational teams, along with a mix of Google programs and other platforms. The company ObjectiveEd, for example, has made their apps available at no cost during the COVID-19 pandemic. North Dakota professionals are using this resource and others to approach their students’ education in a novel way.

Melissa is a TVI and O&M instructor serving students in the southeast region of North Dakota.

As one of the two professionals certified as both a TVI and O&M instructor at North Dakota Services/School for the Blind, Melissa is rising to the challenge of providing educational services.

“I can do some O&M with students via ObjectiveEd, but the downside is that some students don’t have a device,” she says.

Though Melissa is pleased that so many companies have made resources available at no cost, she is concerned that when the 2020-2021 school year begins, the services will cost money and districts won’t have the resources to pay for them. She has learned that some districts have asked to continue using current materials rather than implementing new programs that may come at a cost down the road.

Melissa holds Zoom meetings with families and sends materials to their homes.

“I have done a few visits through Telehealth for my early intervention families,” she says. “With the early intervention (EI) specialist and families we’ve done joint visits. It’s not ideal, but I really like working with EI because they are so creative.”

For all her students she reflects, “It feels like how students will progress depends on the family structure and the resources in their home. Maybe the family is likely to follow through and maybe they’re not. How can we find ways to reach families that don’t have the resources?”

Melissa explains the difficulty of teaching O&M remotely – for example, you don’t want to encourage a student to practice crossing a street if you cannot guarantee their safety.

“I’ve been sent so many resources that it takes hours to go through,” she says. “I have been sending out training videos to families of two- to three-year olds, reminding them of things they can work on with their child in the home. I don’t feel like it’s ideal.”

Despite this, Melissa frequently stays in touch with the families of her students, via phone calls or Zoom. For her students she points out, “My biggest concern is that there is going to be a delay or regression because they’re not getting the teacher support. I’m concerned about regression for a lot of students, and I think students who are blind or low vision are even more at risk.”

As Melissa, Paul, and others in North Dakota and others states and territories work to provide quality, accessible education for our students with visual impairments it is important that we consider life post COVID-19 pandemic. Will our students with visual impairments be ready to move to the next grade? How can families, educators, administration, and policy makers work together to ensure that there are no limits for our students with visual impairments?

AFB will remain vigilant about protecting the rights of people who are blind and low vision, and remains committed to ensuring that civil rights are not rolled back and that access to information, education, coronavirus testing, and all other necessary services are available to the blind and low vision community.