CCSD, Prevent Blindness Georgia Offering Full Vision Exams, Providing Free Glasses to Referred Students

April 17, 2024

PBGA worker performing vision exam“Wow, it’s so crisp! I didn’t even know I couldn’t see it before!” 

That was the reaction from a Clarke County School District student during a recent in-school vision exam made possible through a partnership between CCSD School Nursing and Prevent Blindness Georgia (PBGA). This spring, the district’s team of school nurses and the Atlanta-based nonprofit, which has certified screeners throughout the state, have teamed up to provide free comprehensive, fully-dilated eye exams and two free pairs of eyeglasses to students who are referred for a full exam and are potentially in need of corrective lenses beyond their initial vision screening. This unique collaboration has already allowed many CCSD students to have access to high-quality vision care and optometrist exam that may not have otherwise been possible for them due to barriers such as cost, lack of insurance, or transportation availability.

“As long as they have the referral from their school nurse, they can participate in this process,” said Shavette Turner, Vice President of Children’s Vision Services for PBGA, which has provided exams at six  CCSD schools and campuses to 155 students so far this spring and has five more clinics scheduled before the end of this school year. “We’re excited to be able to do this inside the schools because we feel like you get a better rate of children being able to participate.”

“Thriving Students” is one of CCSD’s three anchor priorities in its 2024 - 2029 Strategic Plan, and to that end the district understands that seeing well is critical for students’ academic success. The American Optometric Association estimates, “As much as 80% of learning occurs via the eyes through visual tasks such as reading, writing, and using computers.” Additionally, the National Library of Medicine cited reporting that 25% of children between ages 6-18 need corrective lenses and that corrective lenses have shown to have a positive impact on student performance.” However, despite being so common, vision issues in children are often overlooked. 

This thinking prompted CCSD nurse Meredith Dykes, MPH, RN, to spearhead the local partnership with PBGA, which in 2023 alone served 108 counties in Georgia through its children’s and adult programs and is using grant funding from the Georgia Baptist Foundation to provide the clinics in CCSD schools.

Every fall, the district performs state-required vision, hearing, and dental screenings on students entering the district in pre-K or kindergarten and additional required vision screenings for students in third and sixth grades. The district also screens any students new to CCSD as they enroll throughout the year. Amy Roark, BSN, RN, NCSN, CCSD’s Director of School Nursing, said the district plans to expand vision screenings to fifth-graders next school year as well. Parents/guardians of students in other grades are also able to request screenings at any time of the school year with a signed permission form. 

CCSD has at least one dedicated nurse at each school, and those nurses are tasked with sending referral notices to the parents/guardians of students who do not pass their initial screenings. School nurses then follow up with families on the referral list throughout the year to ensure they have access to care and that they’ve scheduled and had appointments for their children. The School Nursing team has focused on getting students who are facing obstacles in accessing follow-up eye care to the PBGA vision clinics, which are at offered at no cost to the students or families. The nursing team coordinates with the district’s Transportation Department to provide bus transportation to the exam sites as needed. 

“We wanted to make sure we were addressing some of the issues with vision that we’ve seen and heard about in the schools,” Turner said. “The referral rate after those initial screenings can be as high as 17 to 20 percent. In addressing that, we wanted to make sure this partnership was not just looking at the screening, but we wanted to make sure we were completing the ‘circle of vision care’ and bringing in a doctor to perform the eye exams. We have a phenomenal physician on-site for every clinic, and we really feel like the children are getting the best eye care.”

Every student who is recommended for eyeglasses at the clinics is fitted for them and receives two free pairs – one that the district recommends be left at school with notes and instructions from the nurse and the other to be worn at home. 

“Glasses are a big deal. Vision insurance is a luxury. When we get the opportunity to have medical insurance, it’s one thing, but it’s not often that vision insurance is included in that,” said Turner, who added turnout for the clinics has been strong but that she would like to see closer to 100% participation among referred students. Parents and guardians are also allowed and encouraged to attend the exams with their child. 

“The parents that come are often in tears because they’re so thankful and appreciative,” said district support nurse Margie Varin, BSN, RN, who has attended all of the clinics this spring. “Some of them have been referred for appointments for years and haven’t been able to access the care for their child.”

Last week, during one of the clinics at J.J. Harris Elementary School, Crystal Pineda, the parent of a 4-year-old pre-K student from another school in the district, watched as her son received his exam, was fitted for new glasses, and left with a smile.

“It’s hard to find something like this for someone his age because not a lot of clinics want to see him for a full vision exam because he’s only 4,” said Pineda. “We’ve had a hard time getting him seen, but he’s in school and learning so this is something that he needs. So I think this is a good thing that will help families.”

Families that are interested in their children receiving services through the clinics should contact their school’s nurse to schedule a screening, and, if given a referral, the nurse will work with them to schedule the exam.

Roark said the district aims to expand the number of clinic sites next school year and hopes to work with PBGA in having a presence in at least one of the district’s school-based health centers. 

“Right now, our (Hilsman and Clarke Middle) health centers do vision screenings but don’t have an optometrist,” Roark said. “So this has been a really great adjunct community partnership that, when combined with the other health services offered at the centers, is actually quite powerful.”

Meanwhile, Turner said PBGA hopes to show through its findings and work that the services it provides are necessary and critical as it seeks additional funding opportunities.

“We’re excited to do this, and we’ve been blessed with the generous funding from the Georgia Baptist Foundation that’s allowed us to do this great work here in Athens-Clarke County,” she said. “This really is helping a lot of children and families.”