As a vision teacher/Orientation & Mobility Specialist working for a private non-profit agency, I have had the opportunity to work with several virtual education agencies in my state. The availability of these K-12 online programs is growing, and they are a good option for many students to complete their academic requirements, especially students who have complex medical needs. Serving visually impaired students in these settings presents both challenges and rewards, and in this post I will share some thoughts based upon my experiences serving virtual school students as a contracted employee. In some geographic areas virtual school students may be served by a public school special education program, but in my case the virtual schools I have served have contracted for vision and O&M services with the private non-profit agency for whom I work.
- Each virtual school in my state operates as its own school district. At one point in the past school year I was serving one student each in two virtual schools and one public charter school, and each entity had its own policies and procedures that I had to learn and comply with. One of the virtual schools uses a different online IEP program than most of the public school districts in my area do. I did not have access to this school’s IEP program, so I had to send a word processing document with my IEP information to the IEP case manager so that she could cut-and-paste the information into their program. For confidentiality reasons I encrypted the document, only to find out on the day of the meeting that the virtual school’s email program blocks all encrypted attachments and the case manager never received my information!
- All communication with teachers and case managers had to be accomplished through phone calls or emails because the staff members were in different locations. This was not a huge deal, since much of my communication with public school employees is conducted in the same way. However, I did miss being able to just “pop in” to talk to a teacher or case manager during their planning period or have “hallway consultations,” as I often do in the public school districts I work in.
- Technology and equipment support were often lacking or frustrating to work with. Requests for equipment had to go through multiple channels, and in the case of one virtual school there were very long delays in obtaining the equipment (including a request for a mobility cane for my student, which greatly slowed the pace of his O&M instruction). All requests for technology support had to go through the student’s case manager, and I was never able to contact the IT staff member directly. As sometimes happens in public school districts, the IT personnel did not have experience with assistive technology solutions, and without being able to sit down with them and explain, “This is how it works for visually impaired students,” there were some real communication gaps and delays in getting equipment up and running for my students.
- By personal observation and reports from students and parents, the academic courses offered by the virtual school varied widely in their quality and ease of access. Some courses and teachers were excellent (including teachers who showed a great willingness to be flexible and creative with my students’ needs), but others were poorly constructed and frustrating for the students to access. One of my students has game design as a career goal, and in the first computer class related to this career path, which was offered in the 2016-17 school year, the course was based on the Windows 98 operating system and had not been updated!
- Finally, we had some issues with accessibility of online course materials. One student I work with has low vision and does not need constant access to a screen reader, but he wanted to use text-to-speech for reading content in the online materials. We tried a number of different options, such as Windows Narrator, Capti Narrator, and Snap ‘n Read Universal, but the format of the windows in the online program made it very difficult to move the focus of the text-to-speech utility to the content in the middle of the window. In the second semester of the most recent school year, the student discovered that in one of his courses the teacher had set up a text-to-speech option within the course materials which worked very well for him, so he and his mother have requested that other teachers offer this option in their courses.
Despite these challenges, there are definitely some advantages to online schooling for both students and the vision-related personnel who serve them:
- As noted in the introduction to this post, for students who have complex medical needs and require a homebound setting, the ability to access their academic instruction online is a great opportunity and affords them much more instruction time than they would receive in a traditional medical homebound model. For other students with learning or behavioral disabilities, if they have good family support in the homebased program the virtual school can be an appropriate setting for them. Within the framework of class deadlines, whenever students are not involved in “live lessons” online they can work at their own pace and at the time of day that is optimal for them. They can also take breaks as needed.
- In general, for students with visual disabilities there are fewer classroom and testing accommodations that are needed in the virtual setting. The students are not required to view materials at a distance, and they can use whatever lighting works best for them without putting other students at a disadvantage. Although my students have had some print textbooks for certain classes, the majority of their instruction is provided in an online format, so as long as they can access their online materials (after solving any technological issues as noted above) there is generally little need for modification of materials. However, it should be noted that I have not yet worked with a braille reader or a student needing access to a screen reader who is enrolled in a virtual school, so I cannot comment on modifications for those students in virtual classes.
- In terms of technology, if a student is using personal equipment (computer, tablet, etc.) to access their online education they are generally free to use any accessibility features available on the device (which in my experience are sometimes blocked by public school districts), and they are freer to conduct research for academic purposes because there are fewer website categories that are blocked on a personal device than on a district-assigned device.
- For the vision teacher or O&M Specialist, working in the home and community environment affords an opportunity to build stronger relationships between the instructors and the student’s family and/or caregivers.
- IEP meetings for virtual school students are generally conducted by phone or video conferencing, so there is no need for the instructor to schedule a separate time at the instructional location for the IEP meeting.
- It is important to note that some students may not be enrolled full-time in a virtual school but may take a few classes online. These classes can be a good option for students who need to make up a class during the summer or who require a higher-level class than is offered in their school of enrollment (such as Gifted and Talented students who are ready to take Geometry in middle school, where it is not usually offered).
To sum up, enrollment in virtual schools is growing, and this educational environment can be a good alternative for some students. While there are challenges in serving a student with a visual disability who is enrolled in a virtual school, they can be overcome with the patience, flexibility, and persistence that are required of service providers in any setting. It would be interesting to hear the perspectives of vision teachers who are serving braille readers in the virtual school setting.