[Special education] children are stuck between a rock and a hard place. We need the hands-on services of professionals. Virtual support is great, but it isn’t enough. The mental toll on parents is high. And I don’t think the students are faring much better. —White female family member of a child with low vision, 8 to 10 years old
In the United States, the age at which students complete their education under IDEA varies. Some students earn a diploma or a certificate of completion at the same time as their sighted peers. Under IDEA, some students move into transition programs and complete their education when they reach their 21st birthday, though some states and school districts allow students to remain in school beyond this date. There is no equivalent legislation in Canada.
Three hundred thirty-three students (U.S. n=296, Canada n=37) whose family members participated in the survey were in school-age programs. In this section, data are not broken out by country of residence, with the exception of one question about IEPs and 504 Plans. Students’ descriptive characteristics and ages are reported in Table 6.
Table 6: Ages and Descriptive Characteristics of School-Age Students
|AGE:||Total (n=333)||Blind (n=56)||Low Vision (n=99)||BL + Additional Disabilities (n=56)||LV + Additional Disabilities (n=122)|
|5–7 Years Old||43||6||12||4||21|
|8–10 Years Old||88||17||34||10||27|
|11–12 Years Old||49||9||19||7||14|
|13–15 Years Old||69||11||18||18||22|
|16–18 Years Old||67||11||15||9||32|
|19–22 Years or Older||17||2||1||8||6|
Table 7 provides the educational setting where students attended school prior to March 1, 2020
Table 7: Educational Setting by Descriptive Characteristics for School-age Students
|Where Student Received Education||Total (n=333)||Blind (n=56)||Low Vision (n=99)||BL + Additional Disabilities (n=56)||LV + Additional Disabilities (n=122)|
|General education classroom for the full day with TVI and/or O&M services||87||17||49||2||19|
|General education classroom with 1-2 periods of special education services and with TVI and/or O&M services||81||20||25||11||25|
|Center-based special education school with TVI and/or O&M services||11||0||1||2||8|
|A special education classroom with 1-2 periods in the general education classroom with TVI and/or O&M services||62||2||2||20||38|
|Homeschool with TVI and/or O&M services||22||2||3||3||14|
|Charter or private school with TVI and/or O&M services||23||4||11||0||8|
In the United States, students with visual impairments either have an IEP or 504 Plan. There are no 504 Plans in Canada. Two hundred ninety-three family members reported that their child had an IEP (U.S. n=259, Canada n=34), 10 U.S. family members reported their child had a 504 Plan, and 23 U.S. family members were not sure if their child had an IEP or 504 Plan.
Education of School-Age Students Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic
As with preschool students, 319 family members reported that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, their school-age children had between one and 13 educational team members working with them. Twenty-two students had 10 or more team members supporting their education, while 15 students only had one team member supporting their education. For students with low vision, the mean number of team members was 3.69 (SD=1.75); for students who were blind, the mean was 4.48 (SD=2.31); for students with low vision with additional disabilities, the mean was 5.95 (SD=2.77); and for students who were blind with additional disabilities, the mean was 6.61 (SD=2.99).
Access to Materials Used for Education
To access and actively participate in their education, school-age students use a wide array of tools. Some tools are specific to the student’s individualized learning needs such as an augmentative communication device or a monocular that has been prescribed by an eye care specialist. As the shift away from attending school in a building to attending school in other formats happened very quickly, it was important to understand if students had access at home to the tools they had previously used at school. Family members were provided an extensive list of tools and asked which tools their child used at school prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were then presented the same list of tools and asked to indicate the tools their child did not have at home which affected their child’s ability to participate in instruction.
One hundred thirty family members reported that their child had all the tools at home they needed for learning, and 25 family members reported they were unsure if there were tools that their child was using at school that their child did not have at home.
I am working with my child 2-3 hours per day to help him complete his online assignments. I also am in frequent contact with his classroom teacher and TVI and they provide support and encouragement as I try to help him. His TVI has mailed him braille copies of the books the class is reading, and we also use audio book resources. —Family member of a child with low vision, 8 to 10 years old
Family members were provided a list of 21 items routinely used by students for education. They were asked which of the items their child used at school prior to March 1, 2020. They were then provided the same list and asked which of the items their child needed for educational purposes, but did not have access to at home.
The 10 most common items family members reported their child used at school but did not have at home are listed below in the order used by the most students. The percentage following each item represents the percentage of students, based on family report, who did not have the item at home but needed it for education.
Readers are cautioned to remember that data were collected in spring 2020 when the shift from attending school in brick and mortar buildings to remotely had just occurred. It is probable some students received needed materials later in the spring.
- Tablet (e.g., iPad, Android Tablet) (17%)
- Laptop (e.g., Windows, Chromebook, MacBook) (21%)
- Perkins braillewriter (18%)
- Cane/Long cane/ White cane (8%)
- Large print books (55%)
- Screen reader software (e.g., JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver) (50%)
- Braille recreational books (28%)
- Math manipulatives (e.g., Counting Bears, Digi-Blocks) (36%)
- Electronic magnifier/CCTV (56%)
- Materials for tactile graphics (e.g., Draftsman, textures, tactile graph paper) (49%)
She is missing out on the opportunity to be with peers. While her teachers are doing an amazing job, as am I, the quality of education is decreased as compared to what is available through a brick and mortar approach. —White female family member of a child who is blind, 5 to 7 years old
Education of School-Age Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Although the survey was open from April 22 to May 13, 2020, in the survey, the researchers opted to use March 1, 2020 to mark the day on which educational delivery from school buildings to other delivery models shifted. Families were typically given little notice that there was to be a shift in how education was to be delivered. Of 232 family members who responded, 71 were given a one-day notice that there was to be a change in the way their child typically attended school, 38 were given two days, 23 were given three days, 7 were given 4 days, 52 were given a week’s notice, and 41 family members reported receiving more than a week’s notice that school buildings would be closing.
Forty-two family members reported that their child was not currently receiving educational services, and 235 family members reported the different ways in which the educational team members from their child’s school were working with their child, including:
- Meeting online with children and/or family members (n=135)
- Creating packets of materials for family members to pick up (n=77)
- Calling students or family members on the telephone (n=66)
- Sending materials to the home (n=32)
Two hundred four family members reported that their child attended school online using tools such as Zoom or Google Hangouts. The number of hours students were online varied, with 100 students meeting online 1-3 hours per week, 49 students meeting online 4-6 hours per week, 17 students meeting online 7-9 hours per week, 33 students meeting online 10-18 hours per week, and 5 students meeting online for over 18 hours per week.
Classroom teachers are expecting classroom context. It doesn’t work that way at home. Deafblind students are not remote learners. Period. Communication from teachers that don’t understand this is very frustrating and weighing heavily on my mind as a parent. It’s not helping an already stressful situation. —White female family member of a child who is blind with additional disabilities, 13 to 15 years old
Regular or Special Education Classroom Teachers
The majority of family members (n=219) selected at least one way in which their child was getting instruction from the regular or special education classroom teacher(s). These ways included:
- Classroom teacher(s) sent family members/students ideas of websites, videos, or books to use as part of instruction (n=108)
- Classroom teacher(s) recorded videos for the class, including the student with a visual impairment, to watch (n=99)
- Classroom teacher(s) met online with the entire class, including the student with a visual impairment, to deliver instruction (n=95)
- Classroom teacher(s) met online with small groups of students, including the student with a visual impairment, to deliver instruction (n=84)
- Classroom teacher(s) emailed family members materials to print and have the student use (n=69)
- Classroom teacher(s) assigned projects for students to do on their own that were not typical of what would have been assigned before the COVID-19 pandemic (n=49)
- Classroom teachers telephoned individual students and/or family members.
- Family members picked up packets from the classroom teacher(s) (n=40)
- Classroom teacher(s) mailed materials to the student (n=28)
- School buses or other groups delivered packets from the classroom teacher(s) (n=11)
The researchers anticipated that family members would report that their child was having challenges with their classroom teachers. Forty-nine of 208 family members reported that their child did not have any challenges. There were 159 family members who selected at least one challenge including:
- Paraprofessional support was not available for the child to access and complete assigned classwork. (n=75)
- The online program(s) used by the classroom teacher(s) was not accessible to the students due to their visual impairment. (n=68)
- The TVI did not prepare all the materials the child needed to use to access the material used by the classroom teacher(s). (n=50)
- The child had difficulty getting online for the classroom teachers’ live class ses- sions. (n=45)
- The child was not able to access the information in the packets being sent home due to their visual impairment. (n=42)
- The child was not able to view the pre-recorded video for the class. (n=31)
- The child did not have the necessary technology at home to complete assigned work. (n=11)
Some classroom teachers did not understand what the student needed in order to access the class materials. In some cases, there was miscommunication about whose responsibility it was to ensure the materials were accessible, retrievable (e.g., able to be downloaded from the online learning platform), and available for the student to use at the same time as classmates. Some misunderstandings turned into positive outcomes for students as they were allowed to pursue more accessible means of learning that proved to be overall beneficial for their progress. In other instances, family members and students felt frustrated when the student could not participate fully in the class.
Their lack of awareness around accessibility practices for formatting documents has been very frustrating for me. From misuse of color contrast, to font, to crowding on PPT slides, it’s just another thing I have to do. The technology has not worked properly for most of the school year and the troubleshooting hasn’t always worked. This has made my son even more frustrated than usual in completing schoolwork. He strongly dislikes online learning. —Hispanic or Latina female family member of a child with low vision, 13 to 15 years old
Family members were asked about the level of communication they had with their child’s classroom teacher(s). Of the 219 family members who responded, 8 reported having no communication, 47 had little or limited communication, 90 had the same level of communication, and 74 had increased communication.
Family members were asked the level of support they received from their child’s classroom teacher(s). Of the 219 family members who responded, 15 had no support, 44 had little or limited support, 102 had the same level of support, and 58 had increased support.
TVIs Not at Specialized Schools
[The TVI] has been the most stable aspect. She has worked out lessons, weekly drops off materials, and has met with us regularly four days a week, twice each day. She is the glue holding my son’s education together. —White female family member of a child who is blind with additional disabilities, 5 to 7 years old
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 207 family members whose children did not attend a specialized school reported that their child had worked with a TVI, 5 family members were unsure if their child had worked with a TVI, and 30 family members reported their child had not worked with a TVI. When asked if there had been contact from their child’s TVI once the school building was closed, 172 family members reported “yes,” while 33 reported “no.” One hundred twenty-three family members reported the TVI was continuing to work with their child during the COVID-19 pandemic. When provided a list of possible ways the TVI might be working with their child, family members reported that TVIs were:
- Meeting online (e.g., via Zoom) with a family member and/or my child (n=88)
- Meeting via telephone with a family member and/or my child (n=58)
- Recommending websites, videos, or other online resources (e.g., posts on Paths to Literacy, Virtual ExCEL Academy, accessible iPad apps, sites to download audio books) (n=57)
- Sending via email ideas and activities that the child does with the TVI (n=50)
- Mailing or delivering toys or materials to our home (n=38)
- Meeting online with the child in a small group of students or with the entire class (n=34)
- Sending home packets of materials for the child to complete (n=23)
Family members were asked the level of communication they had with their child’s TVI. Of the 121 family members who responded, 1 had no communication, 14 had little or limited communication, 47 had the same level of communication, and 59 had increased communication.
Family members were asked the level of support they received from their child’s TVI. Of the 121 family members who responded, 1 had no support, 18 had little or limited support, 52 had the same level of support, and 50 had increased support.
They are honestly doing the best they can give that you cannot teach [with] orientation and mobility without being beside the child. Phone calls and emails don’t do this as well as in person. —Female family member of a child with low vision with additional disabilities, 16 to 18 years old
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 203 family members reported that their child had worked with an O&M specialist, 13 were unsure if their child had worked with an O&M specialist, and 65 reported that their child had not worked with an O&M specialist. When asked if there had been contact from their child’s O&M specialist once the school building was closed, 140 family members reported “yes,” while 61 reported “no.”
Of the 139 family members who had contact with the O&M specialist, 78 reported the O&M specialist was continuing to work with their child during the COVID-19 pandemic. When provided a list of possible ways the O&M specialist might be working with their child, family members reported that O&M specialists were:
- Meeting online (e.g., via Zoom) with a family member and/or my child (n=48)
- Sending via email ideas and activities that the child does with the O&M specialist (n=35)
- Meeting via telephone with a family member and/or my child (n=29)
- Recommending websites, videos, or other online resources (e.g., posts on Paths to Literacy, Virtual ExCEL Academy, accessible iPad apps, sites to download audio books) (n=24)
- Meeting online with the child in a small group of students or with the entire class (n=16)
- Mailing or delivering toys or materials to our home (n=9)
- Sending home packets of materials for the child to complete (n=6)
Family members were asked the level of communication they had with their child’s O&M specialist. Of the 77 family members who responded, 1 reported having no communication, 11 had little or limited communication, 45 had the same level of communication, and 20 had increased communication.
Family members were asked the level of support they were receiving from their child’s O&M specialist. Of the 77 family members who responded, 1 had no support, 12 had little or limited support, 47 had the same level of support, and 17 had increased support.
Teachers at Specialized Schools
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 47 family members reported that their child had attended a specialized school. When asked if there had been contact from any of the teachers from the specialized school once the school building was closed, 38 family members reported “yes,” while 2 family members reported “no.” Of the 38 family members who had contact with a teacher(s) from the specialized school, 33 reported a teacher was continuing to work with their child during the COVID-19 pandemic. When provided a list of possible ways the teachers might be working with their child, 31 family members reported that teachers were:
- Meeting online with the child in a small group of students or with the entire class (n=22)
- Meeting online (e.g., via Zoom) with a family member and/or my child (n=20)
- Sending via email ideas and activities that the child does with the TVI (n=19)
- Recommending websites, videos, or other online resources (e.g., posts on Paths to Literacy, Virtual ExCEL Academy, accessible iPad apps, sites to download audio books) (n=14)
- Sending home packets of materials for the child to complete (n=13)
- Meeting via telephone with a family member and/or my child (n=12)
- Mailing or delivering toys or materials to our home (n=8)
Family members were asked the level of communication they had with their child’s teacher(s) from the specialized school. Of the 31 family members who responded, 4 had little or limited communication, 11 had the same level of communication, and 16 had increased communication.
Family members were asked the level of support they were receiving from their child’s TVI. Of the 31 family members who responded, 1 had no support, 4 had little or limited support, 13 had the same level of support, and 13 had increased support.
Initially, [the specialized school] did not know how to do online teaching. They gave families resources/links and then cut off all communication. They tried to use [their internal website] but it did not work well. They switched to Google Classroom but many students cannot use it and it requires the parents to be the middle person. My son always did email and normally receives assignments via email. They did not get that they were already doing online teaching. They have to use software to document for home districts. This really caused a lack of teaching during the first few weeks. Things have fallen into place now but it was a rough first few weeks. —White female family member of a child who is blind with additional disabilities, 16 to 18 years old
The Role of Family Members
Although there are some school-age students who have a high level of independence when attending school outside of the school building, there are many students who need support from family members. In addition to supporting their school-age child with a visual impairment in learning, family members often have a job and/or other children to care for. One hundred thirty-one family members reported they were working, with 92 working remotely from home and 39 working outside the home as essential workers. Ninety-two family members reported they were not employed.
Family members were asked their level of agreement with the statement: I believe that I am not living up to the expectations of my child’s educators because I cannot complete everything they are asking me to do with/for my child. Of the 300 family members who responded, the mean was 3.00 (SD=135) 16. Most family members rated this statement as “Neither agree nor disagree.” As the 2020–2021 school year gets underway, it is important that family members and educators establish what expectations are realistic and reasonable for each student and family.
It was very clear from the responses of family members that when they were informed of the expectations and education plans made for their child that their stress level was typically lower. When educational team members did not clearly communicate expectations, both the stress of the family member and that of the child were reported to increase.
For some family members, lesson plans from educational team members were helpful. One hundred sixty-eight family members reported that they received les- son plans from teachers or therapists electronically (e.g., via email, Google Drive), while 86 family members reported that they did not. In addition, 167 family members shared how often each week they were sent lesson plans, with 82 reporting 1-2 times per week, 20 reporting 3-4 times per week, 28 reporting 5-6 times per week, 6 reporting 7 or more times a week, and 31 reporting that the number of times per week varied. For some family members, knowing how to support their child in their education was a challenge.
One hundred thirty-seven of 252 family members reported they were asked by at least one teacher or therapist to send evidence that the child had completed an assignment, for example, by uploading a video or sending an email.
This has been strictly optional, but teachers and therapists have asked us to take pictures and/or videos to show what our child has been working on. In many cases, therapists have been able to provide better guidance and helpful feedback to us as a result of having viewed the videos we send. —Family member of a child with low vision with additional disabilities, 8 to 10 years old
Family members were asked their level of agreement with the statement: I believe my child is continuing to make progress in the same way they would if there had not been a change in where and how my child is receiving educational services. Of the 303 family mem- bers who responded, the mean was 2.54 (SD=1.23). Most family members rated this statement between “Disagree” and “Neither agree nor disagree” indicating that the majority of the family members did not feel their child was progressing in their education.
Some family members found an upside to the quick shift away from children attending school in a building to being at home. They were able to see firsthand what their child was learning, gather ideas from educational team members to implement at home, and watch their children problem-solve and develop independent skills.
I am very happy with how everything is going. The silver lining is my son has been forced to become independent and really learn technology which in the end is only going to make life easier. —White female family member of a child who is blind, 5 to 7 years old
Moving Into the 2020–2021 School Year
The survey was open as the 2019-2020 school year was ending. The researchers wanted to understand what family members anticipated will occur for their child at the start of the 2020–2021 school year. Seventeen family members were unsure. Three hundred family members shared that they anticipated their child will:
- Attend the same school as the previous year (n=219)
- Transition from one public school to another public school, e.g., elementary to middle school (n=39)
- Continue to be homeschooled (n=14)
- Attend a transition program, typically for those 18 years or older (n=9)
- Graduate from high school and receive a diploma (n=6)
- Transition to a college or university (n=5)
- Transition from public school to a specialized school (n=2)
- Receive a certificate (n=1)
- Transition from a specialized school to public school (n=1)
- Transition from homeschool to public school or a specialized school (n=1)
- Be too old to attend school (n=1)
When asked to select a statement that described their feelings about their school-age child's upcoming transition or return to school, of 72 family members, 23 family members had no concerns; 32 were unsure how the transition or return to school would happen since schools were closed; 3 were unsure who they should speak to about the upcoming transition or return to school; and 3 had tried to contact someone about their child’s transition or return to school, but no one had gotten back to them.
Family members were asked their level of agreement with the statement: Because of the changes in my child’s education, I do not believe my child will be ready for the next school year. Of the 304 family members who responded, the mean was 2.75 (SD=1.27). Most family members rated this statement between “Disagree” and “Neither agree nor disagree,” indicating that they had considerable uncertainty about their child’s readiness for the 2020–2021 school year.
Students who are receiving school-age through transition services can range in age from 5 to 22 years, depending on the policies of the entity providing their educational services. Educational programs can be academic, community based, or functional in nature, depending on the student’s individual needs and IEP goals. Post-secondary education plans can be varied from college to trade school to day programs. This tremendous variability requires that families, professionals, and administrators work together to ensure that the student’s education is comprehensive and appropriate. Policymakers must recognize the importance of having policies in place so that U.S. students receive all services they are entitled to under IDEA and Canadian students receive all the services they are entitled to under their provincial governments’ laws.
- The quick shift for many students to online learning presents families with an opportunity to support their child in developing self-advocacy skills. Families can encourage their child to advocate for their educational needs with teachers and therapists. For example, children can meet with their teachers to request that their materials are accessible, that they be provided 1:1 instruction of concepts that are difficult for them to learn in a group setting, or that their IEP goals be modified due to their current learning needs.
- As a member of the educational team, family members can call a team or IEP meeting to discuss their child’s progress to date. They can use these meetings to share with team members what is and is not working for their child and their family. For example, many professionals may not be aware that four different team members are each requesting the family to log in to a different system and document child progress in a different way.
Role of Professionals
- The ECC is a framework for providing instruction to students with visual impairments. TVIs and O&M specialists can design lessons and share resources with families to promote growth in the ECC areas. For example, students can build independent living skills by assisting with meal preparation or develop O&M skills by exploring the neighborhood with a family member.
- Self-advocacy, an area of the ECC, is an important skill for all students to develop. Professionals can discuss and model for families and students how students can self-advocate. For students who are academic learners, self-advocacy may take the form of calling a technology company to request assistance, letting a general education teacher know that a video is not accessible and working out an alternative assignment, or giving directions to a sighted reader on what information is needed. For a student who has additional disabilities, self-advocacy may include selecting a toy to play with, deciding what to have for lunch, or planning the family’s route for an evening walk around the neighborhood.
- Professionals cannot assume that students and family members have both the mainstream and assistive technology skills that are essential to access education. Time must be allocated for professionals to teach these skills to students and family members and to troubleshoot technology challenges.
- Most families have limited time and technology skills. Therefore, professionals need to carefully consider requests they are making of families when it comes to accessing multiple platforms, carrying out lessons, and documenting their child’s progress through emails, texts, photos, and/or videos.
- Professionals require additional time to collaborate with other members of the educational team to help them understand the effect of the student’s visual impairment when accessing material presented online. Allowing professionals to schedule blocks of time into their schedule for collaboration would facilitate students having a more accessible and richer educational experience.
- Many educational team members are not familiar with the needs of students with visual impairments when it comes to accessing the curriculum, demonstrating a new concept, or making simple accommodations that promote inclusion such as having everyone stating their name before speaking. Professionals need time to meet with other educators to share specific strategies for the student.
Considerations for Administrators
- Administrators should support professionals in finding ways to empower families to learn from each other. Families need mechanisms, both virtually and in person using social distancing, to socialize and share information. Any online platform used must be private, accessible, and available to those who do not have access to the Internet or a device.
- Communication between students, professionals, and family members is essential to student success. Administrators must allow educational teams time to meet to build communication and supports that will allow students to make progress. Teams need time to plan and problem-solve on behalf of their students.
- Students must have access to all mainstream and vision-specific materials and devices that allow them to access and participate in education. In school buildings some devices are shared among more than one student, for example, instructional kits or iPads. In these cases, administrators must work to find additional funding and allow professionals the time to research and develop alternative solutions.
- Administrators can encourage professionals to bring students together virtually so that they can socialize and share common experiences.
- As the end of the school year approaches, if students are not able to physically preview their new school, plans need to be put into place to acquaint the student and family members with the new building and educational staff.
Considerations for Policymakers
- Planning for and carrying out instruction takes considerable time for professionals. Policymakers can provide financial compensation to professionals who work beyond their paid school day.
- Students need the same equipment and supports at home that they have available to them in the school building. Policymakers can work to secure additional funding for necessary equipment and staff that will allow each student to have the needed resources available to them when learning remotely.
- Policymakers should provide resources to students, families, professionals, and administrators so that they have up-to-date technology and curricula that will enable professionals to plan for and carry out instruction and allow students and families to access the instructional content.
- Policymakers must ensure that students who are making a transition out of public school education have received the same quality and quantity of education they would have received prior to COVID-19. If students have not received this level of education, consideration should be given to allowing students extended school-year services or an additional year of public school education.
16. The mean (M) is derived by averaging the participants’ ratings—from “Strongly disagree” (1) to “Strongly agree” (5). The larger the standard deviation (SD), the greater the spread from the mean of the participants’ ratings.