Students referred for glasses often go without them

Sarah Mackie conducts an eye exam at her office. [Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner]

Sarah Mackie conducts an eye exam at her office. [Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner]

Each year, students in kindergarten, first, third and sixth grade get their eyesight checked during state-mandated vision screenings in Florida.

The in-school screenings, which usually take place in the fall, help uncover vision problems before they get worse and begin affecting students academically.

But a report released by the Florida Department of Health reveals that a large number of students who were found to have vision problems in Sarasota and Manatee counties do not get help.

In Sarasota County, nearly half of the 627 students who failed their vision screening are sitting in class without needed glasses or with outdated prescriptions, according to the report. In Manatee County, more than 75 percent of the roughly 800 students who failed the screening are in the same predicament. The report, which covers the period from July 2016 to March 2017, accounts only for kids in the four grades screened, and students who weren’t absent on the screening day.

For many students, the repercussions of untreated vision problems are reflected in school report cards. When the school year started last fall, intensive reading teacher Brenda Zofrea noticed that one of her students — a bright, well-behaved eighth-grader at Booker Middle School — wasn’t doing her work. The student had glasses, but her prescription was old and the earliest appointment her mother could book through her insurance was in February, nearly five months away.

“She was a smart girl, but she was just totally held back because she couldn’t see,” Zofrea said. “By February, you’ve pretty much lost the year.”

National issue

It is a national problem, says Robert Slavin, professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education.

Slavin was part of a research team that conducted a three-year pilot study on the relationship between vision and reading scores in Baltimore schools. Researchers saw marked improvement in scores for students who were provided needed glasses.

“You have kids failing in school every single day because of this very simple and easily resolved problem,” Slavin said.

Zofrea understood her student’s pain all too well. She had bad eyesight herself as a child, but she was too shy to ask for a seat closer to the chalkboard, and didn’t get glasses until she hit college. She grew up thinking that neon road signs were supposed to look fuzzy, and that math was not her strong suit.

“To this day I don’t have a good foundation in math because I couldn’t see well and missed out on what was going on at the elementary level,” she recalls.

Zofrea, who teaches intensive reading to middle school students who are behind in school, tried to find a way to help her student, but it was complicated.

When Zofrea transferred to a different school in January, the student was still wearing the same outdated pair of glasses.

Seeing solutions

In Florida, two state-funded programs — Florida Heiken Children’s Vision Program and Florida’s Vision Quest — help with getting glasses for kids who fail vision screenings. But those programs only serve students who are uninsured.

Sarasota County schools also have access to a Student Emergency Fund overseen by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. The funds can be used by administrators and counselors to pay for items, like glasses, that are considered a one-time need for eliminating a barrier to learning.

The fund has paid for six pairs of eyeglasses this year. As the program has grown, in many cases the administrators may not be aware that the money is available, said John Annis, senior vice president of community investment at the foundation.

Typically, when students fail a vision screening, letters are sent home and the school tries to follow up with parents at least three times, but numerous things need to happen after a child fails that initial screening, said Bradenton-based optometrist Dr. Sarah Mackie.

Mackie founded the Eye Center Vision Foundation, a nonprofit that provides vouchers for free eye exams and glasses for students in Manatee County. She said more than 80 students have used the vouchers this year, but that many more have been distributed.

“A lot of those kids are just not getting in,” Mackie said. “I think the biggest issue for parents is transportation and getting time off from work to bring kids to the exams and then return to pick up the glasses.”

A thank you note from a child who received free eye care from Sarah Mackie. [Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner]

A thank you note from a child who received free eye care from Sarah Mackie. [Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner]

In Baltimore, the solution was to bring the process into the schools. Slavin and his colleagues partnered with the city’s health department, the school system and nonprofits to create Vision for Baltimore.

The program brings mobile eye clinics outfitted for on-site services to the city’s schools. Kids are examined and pick out their frames on the bus. In a couple of weeks, the glasses are delivered to the school — usually two pairs, one for school and one for home, because, Slavin notes, kids are kids and it’s not rare for them to lose their first pair. Medicaid pays for a portion of the glasses and the rest is funded through philanthropic support.

The project also switched over to universal screenings that looked at all students in pre-k through eighth grade. Universal screenings are critical, Dr. Megan Collins, a pediatric ophthalmologist who worked with Slavin and his team, said. Many states only mandate screenings for students in certain grade levels, but that usually leaves a big gap of students whose problems can go undetected for years.

“A part of what we’re trying to do is convince schools that eyeglasses are not just a health issue,” Slavin said. “They’re part of reading programs and math programs — eyeglasses are one of the things you can do to make sure kids are successful.”