PORTSMOUTH, Va. - Fifth grader Ethan Freeman knows that it's not about where you learn, but how much effort you put into your studies. With his laptop in hand, he said he's looking forward to a fun year.
Despite prepping for the virtual school year, his mom, Katrinia was still a little uneasy.
"Honestly, I was afraid because he is visually impaired," she said. "He's actually legally blind in his left eye, and he has a total loss of his right eye."
During a normal in-person school day, Ethan would have his aids nearby and a classroom full of specialized supplies. However, with distance learning, the Portsmouth School District has had to make some adjustments.
Gina Grenier is a teacher for the visually impaired and said, "[It is my job] to make sure that they can get to their work in the best way possible. We have the Closed-Circuit Televisions (CCTVs); we have laptops, iPads, braille writers; we have raised line papers like Ethan has."
To obtain those supplies, Grenier and her team are responsible for applying for state and federal grants, then accessing the need and distributing the resources.
According to Portsmouth Public Schools, there are currently 19 students with visual impairments and 20 students with hearing impairments. These students range from pre-K through 12th grade.
Hampton City Schools reports 25 current students have a primary disability of hearing or visual impairment. Sixteen students have a primary disability of hearing impairment, and nine students have a primary disability of visual impairment.
In a statement, Director of Special Education Kimberly Judge said, "Our division has been proactive in addressing the needs of these students and providing families with resources to support them during their virtual learning. Materials and equipment that are accessible for students per their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), include, but are not limited to the following:
Hearing Impaired (HI) Students
- Audiological equipment such as FM units, behind the ear hearing aids, transmitters
- HI students with interpreters have been provided with a second Chromebook to ensure that students have consistent access to the interpreter during virtual learning. The educational interpreters attend classes with the students.
Visually Impaired (VI) Students
- Large-screen desktop computers as well as keyboards are being delivered this week to students who are identified with low vision needs."
Norfolk Public Schools has approximately 4,400 students who qualify for Special Education and have IEPs. A spokesperson told News 3, "Norfolk Public Schools’ Department of Learning Support-Special Education Staff have worked diligently to adapt our educational support to best fit the needs of students with disabilities in the virtual environment. We are providing our students services and programs to ensure they are receiving a free and appropriate public education. For example, the delivery of speech, occupational, and physical therapy has continued through tele-practice. We are also providing individual coaching for students, parents, and guardians, as well as parent/guardian workshops geared toward strategies for virtual learning. Our staff is ready and willing to assist NPS’ families in their success."
Chesapeake Public Schools reports more than 7,000 students with disabilities. Students are provided with general support, hearing supports and vision supports based on their needs.
Back in Portsmouth, Angelina Abbott is the city's itinerant hearing teacher. During a Zoom interview with News 3 reporter Erin Miller, she spoke about the resources available for students. She said, "Some students have received amplification boxes or FM systems to enhance their hearing ability."
While educators, parents and students work hard every day, she said there have been some challenges.
Related: Parents of children with special needs considering other learning options after Chesapeake schools to remain closed
"A lot of our kids do read lips; they do rely on the interpreter, and they do rely on a lot of visuals that right now technology is limited on that," she said.
Furthermore, Abbott emphasied that communication with parents helps account for any missteps in technology. She spoke highly of the team she is surrounded by.
"Just have an open mind and be willing to take the challenges and work through them."
Freeman agreed saying that she is pleased with the response from Portsmouth Public Schools.
"It’s actually been working very nicely for him. He hasn’t had any problems saying that he can’t see," Freeman said.
Ethan said he just wants to be back in the classroom.
"I just miss my friends. I just want to go to school for real instead of Zoom," he said.