July 14, 2022
Source: American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)
Qualitative research highlights experiences with technology, learning progress, and social-emotional effects of the pandemic
The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) today announced the release of the third Access and Engagement research report, which examines the continued negative impact of systemic and COVID-19-specific issues on the education of students who are blind or have low vision. The report is based on focus groups and short surveys with families of these students and the professionals who serve them as the 2020-2021 school year concluded.
“Access and Engagement III: Reflecting on the Educational Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic” serves as a follow-up to two prior studies conducted earlier in the pandemic. The first, Access and Engagement I, investigated the impacts of the rapid transition from in-person to remote learning early in the pandemic. Access and Engagement II gathered data in November 2020, documenting the experiences of children, families, and educators across a patchwork of differing educational delivery models.
“Access and Engagement III” adds to these earlier findings and continues the story as schools gradually returned to in-person teaching. In addition to survey data from educators, the current study features qualitative findings, obtained through focus groups and interviews, sharing personal accounts of challenges, successes, and reflections on the potential long-term impacts of the pandemic. These findings point to both systemic and COVID-specific issues limiting the educational success of children who are blind or have low vision. The study also highlights perspectives that were not specifically included in the first two studies—information shared by administrators of schools for blind students, families of children with multiple disabilities, and Spanish-speaking families of blind and low-vision children.
“While it became clear that the pandemic would have a lasting impact on students, families, and educators, it also provided us with important lessons that can guide the future education of students who are blind or have low vision, including those with additional disabilities,” said Arielle Silverman, Ph.D., AFB Director of Research.
The “Access and Engagement III” study focuses on three areas of concern that emerged from the previous studies: technology access, impacts on educational progress, and social-emotional impacts of the pandemic on children who are blind or have low vision, their families, and educators. Key findings include:
- Educational Technology Inaccessibility: Parents and educators reported that many digital learning platforms used during the pandemic were not fully accessible or usable. Consequently, students often needed support to access their classes, and they could not access everything their peers could. As one parent said: “I’ve developed a great deal of anger, I’m just done. The ADA’s been law for 30 years and some people don’t care.”
- Lack of reliable internet access: Of the educators surveyed, 43% rated difficulties with internet connection as one of the top three greatest technology challenges they faced during the pandemic. Students living in homes with patchy internet access could not always get full access to remote learning.
- Learning loss: Parents and educators reported that some subjects, such as Orientation and Mobility (O&M), were difficult to teach online. Students nearing high school graduation sometimes missed out on opportunities to get work experience or build skills in the community before graduation, while very young children sometimes missed out on key services to assist with their early development.
- Social-emotional effects: 90% of the educators surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that the 2020-2021 school year was more emotionally challenging than a typical school year. Some of the emotional challenges parents described included their children feeling lonely, fears of COVID, or children preferring not to socialize. Some parents also felt overwhelmed by all the changes in routines and the need to provide more support for their children at home.
- Changes in placement: During the pandemic, some parents decided to homeschool their children or to enroll their children in a school for the blind as they discovered gaps in the services their children had been receiving. One parent, who decided to homeschool, shared: “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.”
- Language challenges: Spanish-speaking parents reported that most communications from schools were only in English. Bilingual educators were instrumental in helping them fully support their children, especially during the pandemic.
As with the previous Access and Engagement studies, the report also includes a series of recommendations, such as emphasizing the importance of thorough communication between school staff and families (including bilingual families), ensuring full accessibility of all software and hardware learning tools, and legislative measures, to name just a few.
The American Foundation for the Blind is grateful to the Lavelle Fund for the Blind for research report funding. The full report is available online at AFB.org/AE3.