School Disruptions Must Not Disrupt Children’s Vision Care

As some parts of the world prepare to send children back into classrooms and others continue to debate the merits of distance learning following a global shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, my thoughts have often focused on this dilemma. The decisions we must make in the face of a pandemic are neither black nor white – compromises somewhere in the middle may prove to be our best solutions, depending on where we live in addition to our circumstances.

Schools are integral to our children’s lives, even beyond education. In many places, school is where they receive a nutritious meal (sometimes the only one that day), are kept safe from the violence that may exist in their homes, and receive clinical and mental health care that they might otherwise not afford or be able to access outside the system.

School is also where many children receive vision care. In fact, the classroom is often one of the first places a child’s vision issue may be identified.

At the Vision Impact Institute, we focus on the ways a child’s vision and access to needed interventions positively affect academic and social performance in schools and in his/her future workplace. Clearly, we cannot let vision care become an afterthought. It’s our responsibility to ensure that our children can see well in order to learn and live well.

In a recent interview with Alyalla Nandakumar, VII Advisory Board member, he stated: “Pandemics kill in three ways: through the virus itself, through disruptions to the health care system, and through the economic stress and crisis.”

What happens, then, to our world’s children when vision screenings and access to solutions like eyeglasses are cut off because schools and their accompanying health systems are closed? What can we do to advocate on their behalf?

We should encourage multiple levels of children’s vision advocacy at this stage – and each must align in order to bring about sustainable solutions.

Parental Attention

A child’s greatest advocate is often his/her parents. Yet, in the current global context, parents are often overwhelmed with multiple new approaches to education and their children’s futures. We must first acknowledge that parents are taking on additional burdens right now, while still encouraging them to be observant of their children’s visual needs. Today’s classroom might be a digital screen (or several) at home rather than a chalkboard at school. Our children’s vision needs will shift with their environment. Sharing simple tips with parents about how to recognize vision problems will go a long way to educate and encourage them to be observant.

School Intervention

For those children who will return to their classrooms, teachers are often frontline detectors of vision issues, escalating care to the next level through referrals to the school nurse or even to an eye doctor. When a child is involved in distance learning, it often takes a team effort between the child, parents, and the teacher to recognize any vision deficiency or difficulty the child may be experiencing. As most or all of the 1.5 billion young people reported to be staying home from school make their return to school, we must be hyper-vigilant to address any vision changes that may have occurred as a result of a changed environment.

Community & Private Sector Adoption

Around the world, community and private sector adoption of this cause will help to relieve the burden of schools and families whose children may not be attending traditional classrooms. For example, the Eye Rafiki program in Kenya, through support from Essilor’s Vision for Life grants, recently partnered with existing school eye health programs to reach out to children while schools were on lockdown. Programs like this help ensure that students continue to receive good vision at school and, even better, at home.

Government Preparation

Over the past few months, the pandemic has revealed the fragility of global health care systems. And while much of our worldwide response to children’s vision is driven through existing school health programs, we must address healthcare challenges at the national government level, including eye care.

Recently, a Vision Catalyst Fund (VCF) was launched to support the creation and development of national scale, government-owned eye health services, sustainably financed for entire populations. The venture’s founding partners include Standard Chartered, UBS, Essilor, James Chen and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB). The goal of the VCF is to work with governments to both strengthen health systems and build markets to provide greater access to quality eye care.

As we continue to advocate for children’s vision, together we can successfully mobilize a movement for vision care even during these current uncertain times. By ensuring that our children see well, we can establish much-needed certainty and invest in their future, knowing that they are equipped to become the problem solvers of tomorrow’s challenges.

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