December 5, 2023


education gives you strength

A 7-year-old in Berkeley works hard to keep up

Kai Wang sat in a swivel chair in his family’s spare room, little legs swinging as his teacher filled the frame of his iPad.

The second-grade students at Berkeley’s Cragmont Elementary School had entered their fourth week of distance learning, logging in from bedrooms and kitchen tables and staring at computers all day. Each screen had become a classroom writ small.

It was a strange new world for all the children, but even more complicated for Kai. The 7-year-old is blind. The room was filled with new devices: an embossing printer, a typewriter-like braille machine. He swiped a finger along his iPad, listening to a robot voice identify content he couldn’t see: Messages! Notes! Chats!

His mother, Mina Sun, hovered nearby as Kai’s teacher began a lesson on “C” and “K” words. Pictures of cake and keys appeared on the screen, then a small, whiskered animal.

“Cat!” the kids shouted, cutting in before the teacher could describe the last illustration.

Kai waited quietly. The teacher gently scolded his classmates. “When you all start yelling out, it’s hard for everyone to see and hear,” she said.

The class ended and Kai’s mother retreated to the living room — arms folded, face resigned. “As you can see,” Sun said, “lots of the teaching is pretty visual.”

While remote education has proved daunting to families across the country, it has doled out challenges unevenly, hitting Kai and other visually impaired students harder. There are about 1,100 blind and low-vision schoolchildren in the Bay Area, according to the San Francisco nonprofit Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Kai had accomplished a lot before the pandemic rolled in, keeping pace with his sighted classmates and flourishing outside of school. He had taught himself to ride a bike and tackled household chores on his own. Playing with other children, he built steep towers of Legos and blocks. He had even, during a dance class, overcome his fear of bumping into people.

But now Kai is bound to a computer and mostly unable to use the software apps that suddenly play a crucial role in his lessons. After years of relative autonomy, he has to work with a parent by his side.

As they plod through online classes each day, Kai’s family wonders just how much learning he will lose — and how far off course the journey of the blind boy will veer.

Daniel Kish remembers when he first got a call from Kai’s mother.

It was five years ago, shortly after he appeared on an episode of the National Public Radio program “Invisibilia.” He had demonstrated his talent for echolocation — the practice of clicking one’s tongue to hear sound bounce off objects, allowing blind people to create mental maps of their surroundings.

Although blind himself, Kish grew up climbing trees, scaling fences and riding bikes. Any blind person could do these things, Kish said, if given the space to try. Sun was eager to get in touch after she heard the segment. She hoped Kish could help her son.

When Kai was in preschool, Sun had noticed that he held toys unusually close to his eyes. She and her husband, Lingeng Wang, took Kai to a doctor and learned through a series of tests that he had retinal degeneration. Over time, it would reduce his visual acuity to 20/2,000, 10 times the 20/200 threshold for being legally blind.

Sun was frightened. Once she got Kish on the phone, they talked for two hours.

“They had no precedent,” Kish recalled in a recent interview. “No idea what having a blind kid would be.”

Last year, Kish met Kai and Sun on the UC Berkeley campus, where Sun worked as a scientist. The three wandered past lecture halls and along tree-lined paths, stopping to grab juice at a cafe. Kish wanted to teach Kai how to navigate by clicking.

“He politely but firmly declined any instruction that day,” Kish recalled. Instead, Kai observed closely and asked lots of questions. He liked to evaluate things before jumping in, Kish realized.

Weeks later, an email arrived from Sun: Kai was starting to practice echolocation. Donning a gold “Star Wars” helmet, he would soon use the method as he pedaled his bicycle along twisting roads near his family’s home in the Berkeley hills, experiencing the world as a rich tapestry of sound — the crunch of twigs beneath his tires, the low wheeze of an oncoming car, the shuffle of his parents’ footsteps.

“Dad,” Kai shouted on a recent afternoon, pedaling past his father as Wang chatted with a neighbor. “You’re standing too close. You should put your mask on.”

By the first grade, Kai could load and operate the dishwasher, organize his clothes and dribble a basketball. He thrived in school and made friends easily.

One of his classmates bought a braille Uno set so Kai could join the card game. Another made him a braille Valentine, forming the letters with pop-up bling stickers. He grabbed the hall pass to use the restroom without assistance, navigating the hallways with ease.

Berkeley Unified School District had created a support system for Kai and 30 other blind or low-vision students. Two specialized teachers for the visually impaired helped redesign the curriculum for these children, and three instructional aides transcribed assignments from braille to print.

Other aides prepared materials and described the content of videos. The district integrated visually impaired students into its general-education classrooms, with teachers roaming the aisles in case they needed help.

Kai’s assistants mostly sat in the corner, at a distance that Sun appreciated. She has seen educators try to coddle her son, and the thought makes her wince.

Then, in March, COVID-19 swept in, forcing schools to close. Administrators had to craft new plans on the fly, not knowing how conditions would change week to week, even day to day. For two weeks, his mother said, Kai had no special education support at all.

Eventually, a teacher and a part-time assistant returned to convert Kai’s educational materials into braille. Sun sparred with the district for months, arguing in a series of emails that administrators needed to hire a full-time transcriber.

School officials told her they were working as quickly as possible despite the constraints of the pandemic.

Kai no longer had an aide sitting in the corner — just Sun kneeling beside his tiny desk. It seemed inevitable, she thought, that her son would get sidelined.

For a while, some aspects of distance learning seemed to work.

A small army swooped in to help students like Kai in the spring. Nonprofits offered free classes for blind children. A company that sells braille devices loaned them out.

Teachers at Cragmont sent a weekly list of suggested activities, giving Kai’s parents and aides flexibility. When his first-grade class learned to draw sunflowers, a teacher delivered the actual plants to his door.

Over the summer, the school district hired Yue-Ting Siu to show Kai how to use the technology he would need for distance learning in the fall. An assistant professor at San Francisco State University, Siu coordinates the teaching program in visual impairments.

When she met Kai, he was still unfamiliar with the iPad. Trying to unlock the device, he dragged his fingers around the screen, searching for the numbers to type a pass code.

“I could tell he didn’t know how the numbers were laid out,” Siu said. So the two of them sat at a picnic table on the family’s deck, where Kai wrote the numbers in braille on Post-It notes. He arranged them to create his own number pad.

While her son learned the mechanics of computers and scattered his Lego contraptions throughout the house, Sun grew steadily more nervous. As weeks ticked by, she found herself peering over the edge of an uncertain fall school year. Sun had already taken a leave from her work as a post-doctorate fellow in molecular biology. Now she wondered if she should quit altogether.

She knew that in the competitive world of academic science, it was difficult to put research on ice and then pick it back up again. Yet she worried more about Kai, who could easily get shut out from a learning format where so much information is delivered in images.

And it seemed so isolating, Sun thought. She considered the “pandemic pods” that other Berkeley parents were forming to give their children a little social interaction. Would anyone invite a visually impaired child to join?

Sun detailed some of these concerns in emails to Kish, who also grew anxious. Reaching out to several blind children he had tutored, he heard different stories with similar themes, “pretty much all of them struggle, and a lot of negotiations.”

“The biggest aspect that was of concern to me was mobility,” Kish said. “How are these kids going to receive a direct service that’s hands-on, one-on-one, and it’s about moving around — physically interacting with the environment?

“The answer is: They don’t.”

On the first day of the fall semester, Kai’s new teacher asked everyone to practice clicking the Zoom icon to raise their hands. Most kids found it easily, but Kai — who didn’t yet know a keystroke shortcut — was left frantically scrolling his monitor. Later, when the keys stuck on his keyboard, he resorted to raising his hand the old way, sticking it in the air.

The school year had barely begun, and frustrations were piling up. Kai couldn’t use the Google Chromebooks that Berkeley and other public school districts gave out to students, because they wouldn’t support all the software he requires.

While the pandemic had compelled other students to go minimal, he needed an intricate rig. His family supplied an iPad with VoiceOver to identify objects on the screen whenever Kai dragged his finger across them. The school provided a braille display to transcribe text, a Perkins Brailler for writing and an embossing machine to print. Sun ordered a PC laptop for Kai on Amazon, the school district reimbursing her.

Then they had to contend with software apps that weren’t compatible with Kai’s screen-reading VoiceOver software. Many of them displayed interactive graphics: balls that students could drag into rows, to practice addition and subtraction; picture books in which students could click on a word and see the definition pop out; an immersive video game meant to replicate a school environment. All of these were inaccessible for Kai — his screen reader couldn’t interpret any of them.

Although Kai’s assistants worked long hours to find workarounds and transcribe books or worksheets into braille, the public health orders prevented them from sitting with Kai at home. Sun and Wang found themselves perched beside his desk each day, they said, doing the work of a full-time aide.

By the fourth week, the family was exhausted. After wrapping up his lesson on “C’s” and “K’s,” Kai sat on the floor, stacking small blocks to form bigger cubes.

“I don’t like (distance learning) as much as in-person,” he said. “I don’t like it because almost the whole day we’re staring at a screen.”

In a statement, district spokeswoman Trish McDermott said that Berkeley Unified “is committed to supporting the learning needs of all our students during the COVID-19 pandemic,” and to fulfilling special-education students’ Individualized Education Programs — documents that outline a specific instruction program and support services — “to the maximum extent possible.”

“This is made far more complicated when we are required to keep our school campuses closed and cannot provide the same in-person teaching that we know is best for students,” McDermott added.

Berkeley school board President Judy Appel was unfamiliar with Kai’s case, but she stressed the need to encourage students like him.

“I totally appreciate parents advocating for the kids,” Appel said. “This is all completely new territory, and we’re all doing our best.”

In late August, Kai’s family moved from the Berkeley hills to a new house near downtown and UC Berkeley.

Their new neighborhood had a bustling, college-town feel: Craftsman homes, edible gardens, snug roadways that Kai could cross by listening to the traffic pattern. Sun had dreamed of living in a flat environment like this one, hoping that once the pandemic was over, Kai could walk to Shattuck Avenue on his own and buy an ice cream — something he couldn’t do in the remote hills.

By this time his family had launched an all-hands-on-deck effort to improve his at-home learning situation. They created an elaborate classroom-like experience in a spare room, setting up a blackboard easel and placing a globe and abacus on the desk. They covered the walls with maps, a periodic table of elements, an ABC chart with plastic pop-out letters and Kai’s crayon drawing of a butterfly.

Wang took six weeks of paid leave from his job at Google, while Sun contemplated returning to work part time. Six months into this bizarre new world, they were starting to see glimmers of hope.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Kai was barefoot, toes grazing a piece of green tape to mark the center of the hardwood floor. His father sat cross-legged in a corner.

Kai’s dance teacher, Valerie Gutwirth, stood in the screen of his iPad, wearing a workout outfit. She turned on bright, percussive music and called out instructions for a “stir, chop, pour” pattern.

The kids were all kinetic energy. They sashayed, jumped, bobbled. Kai stirred and poured by rolling his head, and chopped by thrusting his shoulder forward.

Gutwirth had taught Kai in her class the year before, too. They had formed a bond, she said, when she helped Kai to overcome his fear of “freeze dance” — whirling about and then freezing in place when the music stops — amid so many other bodies.

“Last year he said, ‘I can’t do this, this is too scary,’” Gutwirth said in an interview, recalling how Kai danced close to her for a few weeks, afraid to join his classmates.

None of that shyness was apparent as Kai pirouetted around the dining room. Gutwirth told the second-graders to shrink “like a ball of pizza dough” and spread out “like a ravioli.” She told the class to spin in place three times, so fast that Kai stumbled, laughing.

“Beautiful job, dancers,” the teacher said.

There were still challenges ahead for the boy, his family and the other visually impaired children wondering how to make remote learning work for them. But at that moment, for Kai, it seemed like it could.

Standing before the screen, Kai took a bow.

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @rachelswan

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