Virus adds obstacles for learners at state schools for blind, deaf in Columbus
The state-mandated closure of public school buildings in mid-March because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic caused districts across Ohio to scramble to adjust to new platforms for online learning.
The schools -- on contiguous campuses at 500 Morse Road and 5220 N. High St., respectively, in Columbus' Clintonville neighborhood -- had planned a tech rollout for teachers and staff members in March and April and for students in August with the start of the 2020-21 school year, said Erin Biehl, a spokeswoman for the office of the superintendent for the two schools.
Instead, the schools, which closed March 13, ended up providing the new technology to teachers and staff members March 16, Biehl said.
After two weeks of learning via paper packets, students' transition to online learning began April 6 after spring break, she said.
Students began receiving iPads in early to mid-April.
Moving to online learning -- which wrapped up May 29 at both schools -- wasn't the only change, though. They also had to ensure other student support, such as one-on-one time between students and teachers for individualized education programs and various therapies, also could be carried out remotely.
Myriad devices help clear hurdles
About 125 students from across the state attend the Ohio State School for the Blind, said principal Michelle Wagner. The school includes grades pre-K through 12, and students can defer their high school diploma in a postsecondary education program focusing on job skills.
All students have a visual impairment of some sort, Wagner said. Some also qualify for occupational, physical and speech therapy, which are being offered via teletherapy, texting or phone calls, in whatever format works best for families, she said.
Teachers used Google Classroom with students, as well as Zoom videoconference meetings and phone calls, Wagner said.
"We're really trying to reach students in any manner that we can," she said.
Students with limited vision or those who are blind could use a Braille notetaker, an electronic device with a Braille display, Wagner said, or they could employ a screen reader or screen-enlargement software.
Many students are tech-savvy, said Ron Heath, who teaches high school students language arts, math, social studies and science at the school.
Heath said the school has three programs for students: a general-education program, a program for students with learning disabilities beyond visual impairments and a program for students with multiple disabilities.
This last category includes students with significant cognitive disabilities, as well as some physical disabilities, Wagner said. They might be on the autism spectrum, she said.
In some cases, the schools give parents additional coaching and materials for students with multiple disabilities, she said.
Heath teaches 10 students in grades 10 to 12 in the second category. Four of his students are blind; the others are visually impaired, he said.
On one recent day, he said, he was teaching five high school students -- three of them tuned in via Zoom, one on Google Duo and another using FaceTime on an iPad.
Despite the different platforms, Heath said, the instruction went smoothly.
"It wasn't that difficult," he said.
Even during typical times, classes at the school are small.
Wagner said a maximum of eight students are in a class at a time, per guidelines for students with visual impairments.
But a lot of the one-on-one interaction in the school -- learning Braille, grabbing an elbow to follow a teacher down a hallway -- can't be replicated online, Heath said.
Wagner said the school does what it can via distance learning and supports families in other areas, such as teaching a student how to brush his or her teeth.
Students, teachers on 'equal playing field'
Many of the same challenges and the need for flexibility exist for students and teachers at the Ohio School for the Deaf.
The school has 160 students in grades K-12, and they have a range of hearing abilities, said principal Jason Franklin. About 60% of students use cochlear implants or hearing aids, he said.
The students rely heavily on their eyesight, Franklin said, and they have to pay attention to both teachers and the content being presented. That means a two-hour online-learning session can lead to a lot of fatigue for students, he said.
Morgan Sipka, who teaches middle school social studies, said American Sign Language is the school's primary form of communication on or off campus. In some cases, teachers can add spoken-language support.
"We can all communicate on an equal playing field," she said.
Sipka said she records videos for her students and delivers instruction via live Zoom meetings.
She takes extra time to make sure what she's signing is visible when recording a video, hanging a sheet as a background and ensuring the room has good lighting.
Although some students can understand the material right away, other students struggle, Sipka said. She has open office hours all day, talking to students on the phone about the material for an hour or more.
Like the Ohio State School for the Blind, the Ohio School for the Deaf also has a maximum of eight students in a class, said teacher Angela Moore.
Moore, who teaches five students who have some disabilities that affect how they receive education in addition to either being hearing-impaired or deaf, said said she had provided remote instruction on a one-on-one basis with her students.
She said she had used two iPads: one for communication and one for material.
Moore said she will have a reading lesson displayed on one tablet. When she needs to sign, she will do so on a second tablet, pointing to the first tablet for reference.
In some cases, students struggle with their iPads because the small screens make seeing her hands signing ASL and class materials difficult, Moore said. One of her students uses one tablet to zoom in on the material and another tablet to view the information normally, she said.
Some families have used Apple TV to cast material to a larger screen for their children learning at home, Moore said.
Some parents also are learning basic sign language now that their children are learning at home, she said. On Zoom, for example, the chat option helps facilitate communication between deaf and hearing individuals, she said.
Many parents struggle with ASL because it is their second language, Sipka said, and many ask for video captioning so they can better support their children learning at home.
When students learn a new topic, Sipka said, they learn the words in ASL and in English, she said.
Because students from all over the state attend one of the schools, they stay on campus during weekdays in typical times, Biehl said.
About 50% of students stay on campus at the Ohio School for the Deaf, and 35% to 40% stay on campus at the Ohio State School for the Blind, she said -- though with schools closed, no students had been living at either campus.
Sipka said the overnight staff at her school, who serve as "second parents" for students, revamped their responsibilities after learning moved online, connecting with students and preserving the sense of community they have at school with games and other activities.