How COVID-19 is blocking the vision to help kids become better readers

Vision To Learn provides free eye exams and eyeglasses to kids whose families can't afford them.

Credit: The Decisive Moment

Credit: The Decisive Moment

Vision To Learn provides free eye exams and eyeglasses to kids whose families can't afford them.

There was always a chance COVID-19 would stand between a kid being able to see or not. After all, there’s little the virus hasn’t changed since unleashing its wrath early this year.

Tom Brooks certainly saw it coming. Cobb County’s 15 public libraries where he works closed in mid-March, and now only seven of the libraries are open with limited hours, he said.

If you’re wondering what public libraries have to do with kids seeing, quite a bit actually.

In its continuing efforts to promote literacy, Cobb libraries have been welcoming the mobile eye clinic known as Vision To Learn since 2018, according to Brooks, a spokesperson for the library system. In that time, more than 750 kids have been screened for vision problems and given free eye exams. Of those, more than 500 of them have received free eyeglasses.

Cobb County librarian Stacy Hill helps a student with a new pair of Vision To Learn eyeglasses.

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

If you happen to have the resources to pay for eye exams for your children, count your lucky stars. A lot of parents don’t.

“It’s a big problem,” said Ken Zeff, executive director of Learn4Life, a nonprofit partnership of education, business and philanthropic leaders. “We think there are about 90,000 kids in metro Atlanta who need glasses but don’t have them.”

That’s a problem because kids who can’t see well have a hard time learning how to read. If they struggle to read, they aren’t likely to do well in math or participate in other classes. If they struggle to stay engaged in the classroom, they are more likely to have discipline issues and therefore less likely to graduate from high school, let alone attend college.

According to Zeff, Vision To Learn has been in metro Atlanta since the summer of 2017 thanks to the generosity of donors like the Atlanta Hawks, the Chick-fil-A Foundation, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Georgia Power and others. Last year, the nonprofit provided 5,000 eyeglasses to children in the Atlanta, DeKalb and Clayton County schools alone.

Ken Zeff is executive director of the nonprofit Learn4Life.

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Participation by Cobb libraries is unique because the mobile eye clinics generally don’t work with libraries. They work with schools.

But when Brooks discovered the nonprofit while attending a Learn4Life network meeting two years ago about improving early childhood literacy, he knew the difference it could make in the lives of families they see.

Researchers find that most students need to read proficiently by the end of third grade to be successful in their future studies and careers. In metro Atlanta, only 44% of third graders are hitting that mark, according to Learn4Life. For economically disadvantaged students, the rate is 29%.

Think about that.

“After a 10-minute conversation, I knew students would benefit,” Brooks said. “You and I might take it for granted we can hop in the car and go to the doctor, but for a lot of people, there are all these barriers that keep them from doing that.”

Brooks told me he invited Vision To Learn in 2018 to bring its mobile clinic to Cobb libraries, and the nonprofit provided him three dates to get started. Parents, who either couldn’t afford eye care or didn’t have transportation to a doctor or both, welcomed the help.

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Although the Cobb library system was the first in Georgia to offer the free clinic, Gwinnett County started offering the screening service last summer at five of its library branches.

Brooks said his experiences with Learn4Life and Vision To Learn have been enormously positive.

“You find yourself pulled into embracing the goal of closing the vision care gap in metro Atlanta as a surmountable community challenge,” he said. “We can’t accept the high costs of kids going without glasses.”

Just as they were building momentum providing care and anticipating celebrating more smiling kids receiving their glasses at the Cobb branches, the coronavirus hit. In March, the libraries shut down like other “nonessential” businesses across the state.

Clinics that had been planned for spring break had to be canceled. Others followed.

Brooks hopes July will be the end of the cancellations, but when we spoke last week, he reluctantly acknowledged he wasn’t so sure.

He and Zeff have little doubt, however, that Vision To Learn continues to make a big difference in families’ lives. Not only do parents have one less thing to worry about, so do teachers and the kids in their classrooms who struggle because they can’t see.

“It’s a real bright spot in our community,” Zeff said.

A bright spot we should never allow to darken.

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