Second-grader Tyler Snow uses a Perkins Brailler for his distance learning at home in Arundel. The device is a braille typewriter used for reading, writing and math from early education through adulthood. Catholic Charities is working with Tyler and other visually impaired and blind students to ensure successful distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy / Amy Snow

PORTLAND — As students across the state settle in to distance learning for the remainder of the school year, Catholic Charities of Maine has transitioned from assisting blind and visually impaired students in the classroom to helping them at home.

“All educators are having to think differently, but working with students with visual impairments, it can be particularly challenging,” said Nancy Moulton, director of Catholic Charities’ Education Services for Blind & Visually Impaired Children program.

The program provides assessment, instruction and consultation to blind and visually impaired children from birth through age 20 at schools, daycare centers and homes throughout Maine. It works with teachers and parents to ensure the students have the proper tools and technology they need. About 300 students, including a dozen in Portland, participate in the program.

Amy Snow, a resident of Arundel, said the program has helped her son, Tyler, a second-grader at Kennebunk Elementary School, who has bilateral anophthalmia and has been blind since birth.

Nichole Poisson, a teacher from the program, regularly visited Tyler’s classroom three to four times a week to help him with Braille instruction in reading, writing and math.

It’s that personal connection that the program’s teachers are working to maintain with at-home learning, Moulton said.

Educational packets have been mailed or dropped off to students, and the 17 teachers have incorporated iPads, Braille notetakers and large print and Braille books for the lessons. Teachers also are using Zoom, Facetime, email and phone calls. They have started read-alongs and video and audio conferencing.

“Many of our students need to build their auditory skills. That is important for any student, but particularly for students with visual impairment,” Moulton said of the need for virtual read-alongs.

The overall intent, she said, is to also provide a sense of routine for the students.

“Routine. That is one of the things that is missing. If you talk to any educator, they are going to tell you students are struggling because their routine has been taken away,” Moulton said.

Overall, Moulton said, the students in the program are acclimating well to at-home learning, which will continue in Portland, and other parts of the state, through the end of the school year.

“I think they are doing pretty well given the state of affairs for everyone. We are maintaining contact and the kids seem to be pretty engaged with what they are doing,” Moulton said.

Snow said distance-learning for her son is not ideal, but it’s “best we can do for now.” She appreciates the work of the Education Services for Blind & Visually Impaired Children program, she said, and Tyler has transitioned well to the new instruction approach.

“He is very social and loves talking to people. He lit up when he heard (Nichole’s) voice come though the computer,” she said.

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