Virtual learning is forever emblazoned in educators’ lexicon, but an unforeseen consequence of that pandemic shift could be children’s eye health as optometric experts urge immediate intervention to ensure school readiness for the 2021-22 academic year.
In a public webinar titled, “Seeing Beyond the Pandemic: Eye Health, Vision and Learning,” on July 14, a panel of eye health care experts discussed the preponderance of pediatric eye health and vision consequences, as well as the sheer academic disruption, hastened by the pandemic-necessitated pivot to online learning. The conversation is part of the AOA’s year-long focus on educating caregivers about the importance of regular, comprehensive eye examinations as many Americans seek a return to a pre-pandemic normal.
Hosted by the nonprofit news organization Education Week, the hour-long webinar was supported by industry sponsors and featured panelists that have helped the AOA consistently keep a spotlight on children’s vision, including:
- Erin McCleary, O.D., a practitioner in Connecticut.
- Michele Andrews, O.D., vice president of professional growth & global affairs, CooperVision.
- Charissa Lee, O.D., head of North America professional affairs, Johnson & Johnson Vision.
- Ryan Parker, O.D., director of professional development, Essilor.
At issue is the unprecedented spike in digital device usage and screen time from the pandemic’s onset until present day. In fact, Qustodio, a company that tracks device usage worldwide, found that screen time for children ages 4 to 15 doubled year-over-year in May 2020—at a time when children were already logging substantial screen time. Today, the company expects that as teachers and administrators are more accustomed to the technology, virtual learning tools will be more widespread in helping efficiently organize schoolwork, as well as serve as a fallback in case of COVID-19 closures.
Unfortunately—and unavoidably—the rush to implement virtual learning was done with little concern paid to the visual and eye health complications that might arise, noted Dr. McCleary. Such is the case, eye care providers now can attest to the negative effects of digital device use on children’s vision and ocular systems. So far, these have manifested as increased myopia rates, headaches, eye fatigue, reduced ability to focus and reduced reading comprehension.
“We also are seeing more children with signs of ocular surface disease and dry eye—simply due to the changes in the biomechanics of their blinking reflex when staring at these screens,” Dr. McCleary said. “These visual and ocular manifestations can become chronic and progressive if we’re not diligent.
“We—as providers, educators and parents—need to get a handle on how we want to integrate digital devices into our schools and work lives. Technology is great for so many things, but when there is measurable, negative impact on our physical and ocular wellbeing and visual function, we have to take stock of that and course-correct.”
Additionally, Dr. McCleary reiterated the AOA’s recommendation that all children should receive an in-person, comprehensive eye examination prior to beginning school, including preschool and kindergarten, as this permits early intervention for any conditions that can negatively affect children’s vision. Ideally, these regular eye exams would be done annually as part of back-to-school routines, such as appointments with pediatricians or dentists.
“Optometrists are essentially the gate keepers of vision and eye health, and because of that, we’re able to help connect the ends of multi-faceted care,” Dr. McCleary said. “It’s about prevention and early intervention.”
Watch the webinar on-demand.
Keeping focus on children’s eye health
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The school-readiness webinar continues an important conversation that the AOA initiated on behalf of online learners during the height of pandemic restrictions. This past March, hundreds of doctors of optometry, students and paraoptometrics attended the virtual AOA Children’s Vision Summit where panelists discussed the state of children’s eye health and vision emerging from pandemic lockdowns.
During the summit, doctors discussed the negative effects of prolonged digital device use on students, ranging from asthenopia and dry eye to increasing rates of myopia. As for the latter, a JAMA Ophthalmology study published only months prior to the summit had described a substantial myopic shift among children 6-8 years of age after home confinement due to COVID-19, while myopia prevalence increased “1.4 to 3 times in 2020 compared with the previous 5 years.” While clinicians and researchers continue to scrutinize the effects of prolonged screen time on children’s eyes, there is one thing that is clear as America emerges from the pandemic: virtual learning is here to stay.
“I don’t think schools are going to return to normal when this is all over,” noted Terri A. Gossard, O.D., AOA Trustee, during March’s Children’s Vision Summit. “I think there has been a permanent shift in teaching pedagogy and technology will play an ever-increasing role.
“As doctors of optometry, we need to think proactively about what this means for our children’s eyes and visual system,” she added.
The conversation around pediatric eye health comes at an especially apropos time as American parents and schoolchildren begin their back-to-school routines. Over 56 million preK-12 students will be returning to classrooms this fall, yet lingering effects of the pandemic could mean those settings range from in-person classes to digital sessions or some hybrid variation. Such is the case, the AOA is working to ensure children’s eye health and vision care is a priority.
AOA’s back-to-school campaign in full swing
As part of a new public awareness platform, including a 2021 campaign currently underway with the Eye Deserve More messaging and partnership with USA Surfing and Olympian Caroline Marks, the AOA’s back-to-school campaign will continue to promote the value of proactive eye health and build public affinity for doctors of optometry.
Launched in June and July, the campaign urges parents of school-age children to schedule their kids’ in-person, comprehensive eye examinations with an AOA family doctor of optometry, ahead of the new school year, by highlighting the thoroughness of dilated eye examinations and their essentialness to overall health and wellbeing. Campaign messaging and information will appear not only in social media but also in digital ads on high-traffic websites, popular parenting websites and as part of a social influencer partnership with Instagram personalities and AOA doctors, like Houston blogger, Claudia Estrada, self-care advocate, Elisha Wilson Beach and AOA member, Joseph Allen, O.D.
The AOA also will launch new ads and social posts to run across online channels that emphasize how in-person eye examinations are part of an all-around healthy lifestyle routine.
Access children’s vision resources
To support doctors of optometry and help raise public awareness about the need for regular, comprehensive eye care for children, the AOA offers numerous resources that members can access, including: