Lucy Proctor describes how her school has handled the impact of Covid-19 on their pupils with visual impairment, and shares a call to action.
The Coronavirus pandemic is affecting everyone, but it has caused specific and disproportionate difficulties for young people with visual impairments whose challenges range from managing to adhere to social distancing to accessing their education. The lockdown has exposed the weakness of the SEND system and increased the number of young people who cannot access specialist support and therefore drop out of education and work. If we don’t take action to protect these young people then more and more of them will fall through the gaps and will be left in increasingly vulnerable situations.
Regardless of circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures has meant that young people with VI have all seen their education and development disrupted to some degree. At the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC), we decided to close our campus on 18th March due to increasing concerns about the spread of the pandemic and the vulnerability of our students and their families. It took several days to ensure that all students were able to return home in a controlled and safe manner and we then adapted our personalised, intensive, tailored curriculum to online provision very rapidly, using a combination of platforms to suit individual circumstances. We supplied students with laptops and additional technology to support their home working, where needed. The majority of subjects were successfully taught remotely, and where this was not possible, such as the practical elements of sports qualifications, students were set individual challenges which ensured their skills remained up to date. I was extremely proud of the way our students and staff adapted so quickly to this new way of learning.
While RNC has been in the fortunate position of welcoming our students back onto campus this term after months of online teaching, I am acutely aware of the additional challenges our young people are facing as they try to adapt to an environment of strict infection control. Due to the residential arrangement at RNC we have been able to create three ‘bubble’ groups of approximately 25 young people who all live and study together. Our teaching staff all use Personal Protective Equipment (including masks, visors and arm shields where needed) and we have organised our classrooms and facilities to reduce contact between individuals. We have been able to adapt every element of our teaching, study, social and welfare support for the new circumstances brought about by this pandemic. This has been crucial in enabling students to receive the specialist and intensive support they need in order to thrive and reach their full potential.
Despite these measures, social distancing is extremely difficult for people with visual impairment. This is particularly noticable when our students want to visit local shops or take public transport, which is a crucial part of the independent living skills education. Many of our students have the assistance of guide dogs or canes to help them with their daily living but they still often need to touch more surfaces and objects than a fully sighted person in order to complete basic tasks, which is difficult in a time of heightened concerns about hygiene.
Despite these challenges, our students and staff are adapting brilliantly to their new way of living and studying. It’s particularly rewarding to see them on campus and socialising with each other after months of online lessons in the spring and summer terms. It’s also wonderful to see our talented Sports Academy athletes thrive as they pick up training again.
In terms of the wider picture, I worry about the education and employment prospects for all young people with visual impairment as we enter what is likely to be a deep and enduring recession. Our latest figures show that only 27% of blind and partially sighted people of working age are in employment. There are thousands of young people across the country who are simply not receiving the specialist support they need for future employment and independent living.
We have been speaking out about the lack of educational provision for these children and young people for some time, and the pandemic has exacerbated our concerns. The lockdown measures have caused massive delays in needs assessments and amendments to Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), and the tribunal times for appeals for young people who want to access specialist support are inordinately long. At RNC alone, there are currently eight students who have been offered places at the College but have been unable to start this term due to delays in the EHCP and appeals processes. Most of these students will be without education or work while they wait.
We need to act now to protect young people with visual impairment whether they study at RNC, in mainstream schools or in other specialist settings, and for that we need funding and commitment from national government to ensure they don’t fall off the cliff edge.
The Prime Minister stated on 22nd September the current social restrictions would be in place for “perhaps six months” to suppress the spread of Covid-19. All educational providers will face significant additional costs to maintain a covid-secure estate, if the current restrictions remain in place for this time.
At RNC we have needed to invest an additional £185,000 upfront to create covid-secure living, recreational and study environments and we have had to divert funding away from other areas in order to meet these essential costs. While funding has been allocated from the Department for Education (DfE) to support some students to catch up, there is no meaningful support for the additional expenses required by specialist education providers in order to meet their legal obligation of providing face to face teaching, particularly in a residential setting. This is coupled with ongoing commercial losses; ever tighter local authority budgets; the growing tribunal backlog; and challenges in securing placements from secondary school to post-16. We have taken tough decisions to put our finances on a firm footing but these exceptional circumstances mean independent providers like us are left highly exposed.
We are urging DfE to protect the educational provision for young people with visual impairment and support the full experience they require to live an independent life. There are many practical ways they could help, such as giving specialist providers access to the central budget for building and refurbishment projects to support essential campus infrastructure projects which are ready to start but are not at risk due to the expense of COVID-19.
In addition to this, we must not lose sight of the long term impact of this pandemic on the employment and life prospects for young people with visual impairment. I fear that young people with visual impairment will be highly vulnerable in the current volatile labour market if they don’t receive the support they need during their crucial school and college years. Given the right support, young people with disabilities, including visual impairment, can achieve whatever they want to achieve and we must not allow this pandemic to destroy their life chances.