Outreach in the Time of COVID-19
Authors: Kate Borg, Outreach Director, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI)
Keywords: COVID-19, online support, collaboration, virtual consultations, partnerships, Coffee Hour, Texas Families Together, TFT, educational support, family support, social media, distance learning
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Back in March 2020 (can you believe it was not 5 years ago?), Outreach, TSBVI, and our whole profession found ourselves in new territory. I know that we are all tired of the word “unprecedented”, but that is absolutely the correct description. Suddenly, students were without in-person instruction, service providers were without instructional support, and family members were now stepping into the role of teachers. It is said that in times of crisis, people band together, but something that I love about this profession is that we are already, and uniquely, together. What this experience has done is strengthen the bonds of partnership and collaboration, and has created time and space for sharing with and teaching each other.
One of the initiatives that came together very quickly was the TSBVI Outreach Coffee Hour. As we visited as a team, we knew that teachers and providers in Texas would need a place for support and collaboration. The Outreach team wanted to ensure that what we provided would enhance instruction and not add another burden to already overwhelming circumstances. We talked about the need for topics that addressed instructional strategies in a collaborative way, without becoming “one more thing” to worry about. The team worked quickly to organize sessions, and we held our first Coffee Hour on March 30th.
Thanks to social media, peer-to-peer invites, and our partners nationwide, Coffee Hour reached families and professionals from all over the United States and throughout the world (Germany, England, Canada, Croatia, and more!). By the end of May, we held 26 sessions with over 8500 participants, averaging 340 per session. Topics of discussion included series on Cortical Visual Impairment, Early Literacy, Active Learning, Supporting Assistive Technology from a Distance, Orientation and Mobility in a Virtual Format, Supporting Braille Readers Remotely, Early Childhood, Optic Nerve Hypoplasia, and many more!
What started as a “crazy” idea grew into a robust program of collaboration across agency, state, and international lines. TSBVI Outreach Coffee Hour is a testament to the efforts, expertise, and collaborative spirit that is found in our field. I want to recognize the work of Kaycee Bennett and other members of TSBVI Outreach teams for creating and presenting content, scheduling presenters, managing media platforms and permissions, and organizing materials in accessible formats. I also want to specially recognize the efforts of families and colleagues in Texas, Washington, Utah, Oklahoma, Maryland, Michigan, New England, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, who participated by presenting or providing content. This collaboration made for important contributions to Coffee Hour, and we are so excited and humbled to acknowledge that Coffee Hour received a special, collaborative award from the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) and the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) Division on Visual Impairment and Deafblineness (DVIDB), The Presidential Recognition of Extraordinary Achievement Award.
And in case you are worried that it’s going away, don’t put those coffee mugs back in the cupboard just yet! We are continuing to have Coffee Hour throughout this year; information can be found in the Professional Development Library using the Topic filter for Coffee Hour.
Texas Families Together (TFT)
Another initiative that grew out of Outreach responses to the COVID-19 pandemic was designed specifically for families. The Family Engagement and Transition Coordinators worked together to create Texas Families Together (TFT), an online meeting space for family members of students who are blind, visually impaired, or deafblind. From April through May, they held 18 sessions, including three every Tuesday! And they did not stop with the end of the school year. TFT continued throughout the summer, and will continue throughout the 2020-2021 school year.
An important aspect of TFT is that it is a protective space for families only, creating an environment of collaboration and sharing. One participant shared, “The group meetings have meant a great deal to me. They have allowed me to voice my concerns about distance learning in a safe, caring and respectable environment. It’s always nice to know that there are others in the same boat. It has been helpful to talk with professionals about what we are going through. It finally gave me the approval to stop being so hard on myself and to take some time to just breathe and to see the good in every day.”
Families are our most important partners in education and this time has been so important for us to get to know families better and for them to connect with each other. For now, TFT will continue to happen on Tuesdays, at 4 pm. You can find the information at https://www.tsbvi.edu/tx-families-together.
Fulfilling Our Mission
Through all of the issues that occurred in Spring 2020, including quarantine during COVID-19, the Outreach staff continued to fulfill our mission to partner with families, educators, and communities to build positive opportunities for children with visual impairments and those who are deafblind. We continued to provide virtual consultations statewide, hosted webinars to a national audience, and published an issue of this very newsletter.
As the Outreach Director, I especially want to give gratitude to an incredible group of professionals who work tirelessly to simultaneously learn and teach within this field. Although things may look and feel different for quite some time, we are committed to continuing to provide information, support, training and leadership in Texas and around the world to families and professionals in the fields of visual impairments and deafblindness.