Law updates vision screenings in Virginia public schools

Girl having her eyesight tested by optometrist, Photo courtesy of the Virginia Vision Therapy Center

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — If students can’t see well, they can’t learn well. So Virginia has adopted a new state law to improve student vision screenings. The law will allow schools to partner with nonprofit groups and use digital technology in testing students’ eyesight.

The law is the result of House Bill 1408, which was passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe earlier this year. The legislation, sponsored by Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, will take effect July 1.

“The amendments fortify our efforts to modernize the code regarding vision screening and to deploy modern technology to benefit our schoolchildren,” Ware told his colleagues before the House of Delegates unanimously approved the bill in February.

Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan

Under existing law, schools must test students’ eyesight. Ware’s bill updates the law to reflect advances in screening technology and to allow nonprofit groups to perform the tests.

“The bill was amended to allow, but not require, vision screening through digital photo screening by a qualified nonprofit vision health organization,” Charles Pyle, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education, said in an email. “The bill was also amended to allow other screening methods by such organizations, provided that they comply with Department of Education requirements.”

Under the bill, school districts are allowed to use qualified nonprofit vision health organizations, such as the Lions Club and Conexus for Healthy Vision, for mandated vision screenings. Students’ vision must be tested in kindergarten, in second or third grade, and in seventh and 10th grade.

Conexus officials worked with Ware on revising the current law.

“It really hadn’t been updated for, like, 30 years, so we were kind of involved early on in just trying to modernize the code and put in some definitions,” said Tim Gresham, CEO of the Richmond-based group. “Just kind of bring the code up to today’s standard; to include permissive language, to allow for the use of technology that is available today.”

A Richmond-based nonprofit, formerly known as Prevent Blindness Mid-Atlantic, helped revise the state law on vision screening

Gresham said Ware had been involved with Conexus in the past and had observed what the organization, formerly called Prevent Blindness Mid-Atlantic, was doing in Virginia schools.

“So he was aware of the impact that we were having in public schools all across Virginia with our programs and as we modernized our vision screening process,” Gresham said. “It sort of stood in stark contrast with what a lot of school divisions were doing with traditional, old-school screenings.”

Modern testing methods include digital photo screening, in which a camera takes images of a child’s undilated eyes. It can detect who is at risk for amblyopia (lazy eye) and other problems.

Vision screenings can be critical to a student’s success in school.

“If a child is not seeing well, they are just not going to perform well in a traditional classroom,” Gresham said. “A fourth of the public school-age children in Virginia have a vision problem.”

Ware’s bill gives schools more options to meet the state’s existing requirement to test students’ vision.

“It really is giving these localities the permission to use an outside organization like ours,” Gresham said. “So over time, I would hope that most localities would move away from the old, traditional way of screening into a modern use of technology that is out there today.”

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