Distance Learning Transition
Distance learning is not new to Miami Lighthouse. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we provided remote learning throughout the world for blind musicians using screen reading software, such as JAWS, in addition to remotely teaching braille music and computer technology classes.
In March of 2020, however, we fully transitioned our Miami Lighthouse Academy, LLC to distance learning. We had to find technology for ourselves and our learners, as well as applications that are accessible for blind or visually impaired early learners. Additionally, as these are toddlers, preschoolers, kindergarteners, and first grade students, how could we vary and engage instruction while still providing the structures and supports these students need?
Stability and Structure for Students
We began the transition to distance learning by providing our early learners synchronous and asynchronous instruction. We wanted to translate the successful systems we had in place in our classrooms to our learners’ at-home environments.
Our synchronous instruction consisted of live class sessions through Zoom where teachers would provide the familiar morning routine (e.g., greeting circle, storytime).
To keep our early learners engaged, we then divided the day with asynchronous instruction. During this time, students were provided at-home learning activities and independent learning opportunities through educational apps.
In addition, to provide further support and stability for students, we transitioned our on-site therapy services to telehealth services for those identified as needing therapy through their Individual Education Plans.
Support Systems for Parents and Teachers
Another critical move we made during the transition was to implement Clever, our school’s digital learning platform, as a tool for parents. This portal allows us to facilitate distance learning by providing our families a single sign-on to a user-friendly site for resources, communication, and instruction. Parents are able to access their child’s personalized classroom page, where their teacher includes daily activities, a list of materials necessary to complete activities, and independent work instructions.
Additionally, all of our students received home learning packets before the start of the new school year to share with their parents. These learning packets outlined everything our students would need to complete their activities at home as well as tactile materials such as object schedules for our students with visual impairments to ensure learning at home.
We also developed a remote learning fidelity checklist for teachers to use during our live class sessions. This checklist targets the main components needed to ensure distance learning is accessible for our students with visual impairments. The tool has helped our teachers make accommodations to their live sessions to meet the individual needs of our students.
I am inspired every day by the ingenuity of our teachers and their ability to rise to the challenge of distance learning. One of our students, for instance, has multiple disabilities, and her teacher of the visually impaired facilitated live Zoom classes with her. Using everyday, household items to teach the braille cell, the student practiced pre-braille skills using cupcake pans filled with tennis balls. Because of this experience, the student was able to make significant gains in learning.
Amplifying the Voices of Parents
Parent feedback is important to us and helps us to improve our practice. In collaboration with the University of Miami’s Department of Psychology, we developed remote learning surveys to allow parents to express their suggestions and concerns. Survey questions were related to student engagement, home-school collaboration and school support, accessibility of lessons and technology, and personal well-being/stress. In response to information collected from the initial round of surveys, we were able to address parental concerns and improve our practice prior to the start of the school year.
In addition to the surveys, we maintain constant communication with our families throughout the school year. Amid distance learning, we continue to communicate with parents through our Clever portal, daily notes, messaging, and phone calls.
Building an Understanding of Perspective
Over the last year, we’ve gained a better understanding of ourselves, how we handle situations, and how we are educating children.
We strive to use a variety of instructional methods to engage learners. To best do this, ensuring accessibility for our blind and visually impaired students is at the center of what we do.
An activity that worked well for us was holding mock lessons with our teachers and administrators during our break before the 2020–21 school year. During these mock lessons, the teachers would teach the administrators wearing vision simulator glasses. This gave us an understanding and a perspective of how our students were engaging in the daily lessons. We, as “students,” were able to give specific feedback to our teachers, who were then able to modify their lessons to support these needs.
One thing that struck me during this activity concerned the song we use for the morning circle. We have used this song in our classrooms every school year. However, when I heard this song during the mock lessons when I was without sight, it was overwhelming. We were able to realize, because of this experience, that this song is too overstimulating for our students, and we found an alternative.
Distance learning brought many challenges, but it also highlighted many bright spots. Our teachers rose to the challenge, going above and beyond to meet the needs of our students. Our connection and collaboration with parents was further strengthened. As a staff, we came together to critically evaluate how we would provide the best learning opportunities possible for our students.
About The Author
Dr. De Angelis joined Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in 2017. As the director of Miami Lighthouse Academy, LLC, she ensures program fidelity, oversees curriculum implementation, and provides direction and follow-up to the instructional team.
Dr. De Angelis’s professional background consists of over 15 years of experience in the field of special education. She holds a Doctor of Education degree with a concentration in Special Education. She is a Florida Certified Exceptional Student Education/ESOL teacher and a licensed Florida Child Care Director. In addition, Dr. De Angelis is an Infant-Toddler Developmental specialist and is certified in VIISA (Vision Impaired In-Service in America) for children ages 3-5.
Dr. De Angelis began her career as a special education teacher in the New York City public school system, where she taught a self-contained, varying exceptionalities class for fourth through sixth grade students. She was promoted within the school where she served as the SETTS (Special Education Teacher Support Services) teacher providing direct support to students in grades K-6. In addition, she assisted with the implementation of special education services as the school’s IEP coordinator.
Dr. De Angelis began her administrative career as the Education Coordinator of a special education charter school, where she provided leadership to the teaching team and ensured compliance of individualized education plans.
Miami Lighthouse Academy, LLC launched in 2016 in partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools as a center-based inclusive learning environment for toddlers and preschool-aged children. Through its co-teaching model, a certified Early Childhood Teacher and a certified Teacher of the Visually Impaired work side by side in a classroom structure that includes 50 percent of children with a visual disability and 50 percent without a visual disability. In addition to their inclusion classrooms, they also offer a reverse mainstream classroom for students with multiple disabilities. This classroom model consists of a majority of students with multiple disabilities learning alongside two to three sighted peers.
In the 2019–2020 school year, the Miami Lighthouse Academy, LLC expanded its subcontract with the School Board of Miami-Dade County to include kindergarten and first-grade children who are visually impaired.