When teacher Nadelle Plaayne considered whether to return to school last fall, the risk of catching COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing weighing on her mind. Payne, who is deaf, worried she wouldn’t be able to communicate with students while wearing a mask.
“Facial expressions to a deaf person, it has a tone of voice like someone who could hear,” said Payne. “You are able to listen and get a sense if someone is being sarcastic or angry. Deaf people depend on lip reading to have that same type of information.”
For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, covering someone’s face means pieces of conversation get lost. That’s a challenge given that public health experts tout mask wearing as one essential strategy for reopening schools. Educators say that while virtual learning has advantages for deaf students and teachers because no one needs a mask, visual learners are prone to screen fatigue. Then there’s the all-important socialization for young people that a classroom offers. So, those who work with deaf students are adapting to the new normal.
With help from an assistant, Payne usually teaches English to middle schoolers who can hear in the Douglas County School District. After finding out all teachers would be expected to wear masks and that her assistant had been tapped to substitute teach, she resigned.
“I resigned because I was scared and anxious. I was trying to figure out a communication system,” said Payne, who is now teaching American sign language part-time online. “The biggest challenge for me is not having a classroom type of job… I don’t know that I’ll be back to full-time teaching until we do not have to wear a mask anymore.”
How deaf schools are adapting
For Tera Wilkins, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, the pandemic has underscored the importance of in-person learning for her deaf, blind and deaf-blind students.
In March, the Colorado Springs campus closed following an order from Gov. Jared Polis. Students were sent home with devices tailored to their specific needs and other assistive technology. Laptops for blind students, for example, come programmed with accessibility software that can read the screen, but administrators also needed to make sure students had braille writers, braille paper and magnifying tools.
Deaf students and teachers attended classes over Zoom. Rachella Ortiz, who teaches kindergarten and first grade, was encouraged to see some parents sitting in and helping their kids with assignments. The majority of deaf students are born to hearing parents, she said, so it was heartening to see adults learn more sign language as well.
But keeping young kids engaged online was difficult, and Ortiz has noticed impacts on language acquisition for some who are still enrolled remotely.
CSDB senior Grace Benham described online learning as uncomfortable because it requires a lot of focus to keep up with the teacher’s signing, especially if the screen freezes.
“The downside is the glitches in the system, the misunderstanding that could take place all based on the screen, the 2-D experience,” Benham said.
At Rocky Mountain Deaf School in Denver, teachers had to figure out how to use technology differently once school went remote. Sixth grade science teacher David Oyler said the digital format increased accessibility to scientists and other guests speakers who can video call into class. Director Amy Novotny said virtual events such as the school spelling bee may stick around even after the pandemic.
CSDB reopened for in-person learning in August, phasing in students starting with its youngest. Like other schools, instruction was frequently disrupted when students and staff had to quarantine. Finding substitutes who sign became even more challenging, Wilkins said.
Students returned to campus in late January, and the school is now open five days per week for all grades. Red tape divides floors to encourage one-way traffic on either side of the hallways. Plexiglass surrounds individual desks and every classroom is equipped with a basket of cleaning supplies. Some students wear masks with clear plastic windows, so their mouths are visible but still covered.
Ortiz switches between a mask and face shield when she teaches, though she’ll remove them if it’s critical to the children’s understanding of ASL. The face shield can impede communication because educators will bump the plastic while signing or it will get in the way of signs that require touching the face.
Overall, her kids adapted well to wearing and communicating with their masks, Ortiz said. Novotny agrees.
“It’s not new anymore,” Novotny said. “Sometimes if we are one-on-one with students, we have face shields we’ll use. We’ll put those on to make sure they understand a point and move on with communication. We’re code switching and really accommodating to make sure every communication is appropriate and effective.”
Addressing mental health
Rocky Mountain’s elementary students are back in-person, but middle and high schoolers remain in remote learning. About half of families preferred virtual education and it was near impossible to instruct kids on campus and online simultaneously, Novotny said. Still, it’s no replacement for in-person learning.
“Screen fatigue is definitely very real,” she said. “We use Zoom all day and noticed we need to build in breaks to let kids focus on work or something else versus just being on Zoom. We went from zero to 90 and now maybe we’ve found a nice balance.”
Socialization was also top of mind for CSDB when it decided to reopen. The school accepts students from across Colorado and many don’t have friends or family who speak ASL with at home, said Wilkins. That’s especially important for Ortiz’s little ones, who need to learn social skills and vocabulary before they can dive deep into academics.
Senior Benham has noticed that her classmates who live far away feel more isolated and neglected, relying on digital platforms to keep in touch. That’s part of the reason she plans to study psychology when she starts at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., next fall.
“The development of all the mental health problems that have been taking place, I think there’s not many deaf people that have access to complete direct communication with a deaf individual,” she said.
Benham is not usually active on social media, but she’s trying to use it more to keep in touch with friends. Payne, the Douglas County teacher, can relate. At the beginning of the pandemic, she and her friends would get together on Zoom or text using the Marco Polo app. Lately, however, everyone has seemed quiet.
“All of our jobs are online, so when we’re finished with work for the day you’re exhausted, you don’t really want to go online for more virtual conversations. You’re tired of being on a screen,” Payne said, who writes about her experiences on a blog, Through Deaf Lens.
Both CSDB and Rocky Mountain host virtual social hours, when students can tune in on Zoom and chat with their peers or play games. If Oyler notices one if his students seems stressed online, he’ll encourage them to read a book, take a break outside or spend class time drawing.
With COVID-19 vaccines rolling out to residents across Colorado, Benham is looking forward to having opportunities to hang out with her friends during her last semester in high school. She’s excited to go to prom, to hopefully be able to take a senior trip, and, of course, collecting her diploma.
“Graduation — the traditional graduation — is what I want,” she said, “and more people to be able to watch the graduation ceremony.”
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