Deaf students at Arizona school will learn virtually, but not without obstacles

Sequoia Deaf School Principal Warren Keller, joined by Assistant Principal Jennifer Reid, talks about the challenges – and improvements – in providing information to the Deaf community. (Video by Katelyn Keenehan)

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students are adjusting to their new normal when it comes to online classes, virtual events and social distancing to prevent the spread of the disease.

But for deaf and hard of hearing students in Arizona public schools, as well as for many more enrolled in private schools, these adjustments introduce new barriers to communication and learning. Last year, according to the Arizona Department of Education, 1,622 deaf or hard of hearing students were in public schools.

Sequoia Deaf School, part of the Edkey Inc. charter school group in Mesa, had 52 students enrolled in grades K through 12 for the 2020-21 school year. Its experience navigating the pandemic illustrates some of the challenges deaf students face, such as difficulty reading lips and faces behind masks, the shorter attention spans of young deaf students and the loss of their nurturing school community.

Sequoia in July announced its distance learning plan for the fall semester and plans to begin its hybrid semester – part online, part in person – in October. However, no specific date has been set due to the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, which has killed more than 5,300 Arizonans.

The Department of Education and the Exceptional Student Services, a state agency that oversees education for students with disabilities, provided guidance for safely reopening schools. The recommendations include identifying learning gaps from the previous semester, providing personal protective equipment and increasing communication between students and faculty.

Exceptional Student Services emphasized that the measures are not prescriptive and function more as recommendations. Each district can make the final call on its fall reopening plan.

Sequoia students who also have intellectual or physical disabilities will receive in-person attention for their specific needs. Other students at the school are expected to attend completely online.

Before the COVID-19 shutdown in March, Sequoia operated on the same campus as the Sequoia Charter School, where deaf and hard of hearing students learn in the same classrooms, play on the same sports teams and participate in the same clubs as their hearing peers.

Warren Keller, principal of Sequoia Deaf School and a member of the Deaf community, said integration is one of the best ways to teach deaf children how to interact with the hearing world.

“It’s not like a gated community of deafness, you know, they’re out in the community, they’re interacting with their hearing peers,” he said. “And they’re getting used to being part of a community that is with both deaf people and hearing people.”

But in March, the rapid spread of the coronavirus pushed students across the country online, ending in-person instruction, sports and after-school activities.

Jennifer Reid, the assistant principal of Sequoia Deaf School, said integration is one of the most important tools for children with deafness. For the rest of their lives, she said, they will need to know how to work with an interpreter or read lips to complete such activities as attending medical appointments, job training or secondary school.

Masks complicate lipreading

An important skill deaf individuals develop from a young age is reading lips and body language to compensate for their compromised hearing. Deaf and hard of hearing people also are adept at reading facial expressions to determine the mood and tone of the conversation, according to the Hearing, Speech and Deaf Center in Seattle.

Sequoia Deaf School allows students to learn American Sign Language and lipreading skills starting as early as kindergarten.

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With the introduction of face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, deaf people often can’t grasp the conversations around them. Keller said he struggles with this new reality.

“It’s been difficult with everyone in a mask, especially to get lipreading cues. So that’s been a huge challenge for me,” he said.

Lipreading is not a stand-alone communication method. Even if a person speaks slowly, only about 25% of the conversation can be understood by lipreading alone, according to the Hearing, Speech and Deaf Center, whose mission is “to foster inclusive and accessible communities.”

But what complicates the issue, Keller said, is that facial expressions, too, now are hidden behind a piece of cloth.

Sequoia Deaf School invested in clear face masks and shields for all deaf students and school staff members, which will be handed out when students return to campus.

Virtual learning challenges attentions

Virtual learning can be challenging for many students, educators say, but the problem is worse for deaf and hard of hearing students.

“Visual attention is really difficult for our students,” said Reid, vice principal at Sequoia Deaf School. “It takes a lot for your brain to visually attend to something. And as a hearing person, we can just look off in the distance and keep listening. But for a deaf person, you have to stay focused visually. When doing that for an extended period the brain just doesn’t function like that.”

Students in elementary grades are the biggest point of concern at Sequoia Deaf School because of their short attention spans.

Mark Plitzuweit, CEO of the Edkey charter school group, said deaf students come into their first year of school almost three years behind on their communication skills.

“They’re 5 or 6 years old, coming into kindergarten, and they are just beginning the initial steps of any type of verbal, nonverbal, sign language or any type of communication,” he said.

In addition, their American Sign Language skills are not fully developed.

“That’s where checking for understanding comes in,” Plitzuweit said, “If I’ve said something to a student, I can follow by asking them, ‘Do you understand?’ or ‘Can you repeat what I said?’ those types of things.”

To increase the success rate, virtual deaf education classes at Sequoia Deaf School were shortened to 30 minutes for the 2020-21 academic school year to maximize students’ visual attention spans.

“So they are short but have heavy content,” Reid said. “We are going to start out a little bit slow, kind of retrying to get back in touch with the students.”

Impact of social distancing on Deaf community

Virtual education also can be a lonely experience, and students who are deaf already experience much higher levels of isolation, Reid said, adding that only 5% of deaf children are born to deaf parents.

“A lot of our students go home to neighborhoods where they’re the only deaf child in that neighborhood,” she said. “They’re the only deaf child in their family, and they might have been the only deaf person their parents have ever met.”

And for many deaf students, their school has become a safe haven, said Keller, who attended both regular schools and schools for the deaf.

Plitzuweit said school closures have been “very difficult for a lot of our students … and not because they aren’t learning.”

“It’s because they’ve lost the connections with their friends and with the community that we have built at the Sequoia Charter School,” he said.

Keller said socialization will be the biggest labyrinth for deaf students in a virtual learning environment.

“We want to make sure that the students don’t feel alone and that they’re able to be celebrated,” he said.

The school’s deaf-education classes for kindergarten students have six to eight students, making it easier for teachers to connect one-on-one with students.

“Our teachers know their students very well” Reid said, “and are also very close with the (students’) families and that’s another piece, too.”

To help families during the spring semester, Sequoia Deaf School offered virtual American Sign Language classes for the parents of deaf students. This helped students feel less isolated at home during quarantine, Reid said, because they began to develop a method of communication with their family.

Some students are heading back to classrooms

A handful of students at Sequoia Deaf School have other developmental disabilities that hinder them from thriving in an online learning environment. The school plans to bring those students back onto campus in October, Reid said.

“Our students that are deaf with additional disabilities like autism, or deaf with moderate intellectual disabilities, they’ll be coming back onto campus at staggered times as well,” she said.

Some students lost their accessibility to physical therapy and occupational therapy services while under quarantine for five months, she said, adding, “We do have some students that may never regain what they’ve lost during this time.”

As principal, Keller said he understands that students have had different experiences during the pandemic. He emphasized the importance of thinking creatively for solutions to many of these fundamental barriers for his deaf students in particular.

“I think if you take care of their happiness and their safety, they’ll be able to give 100 percent, so I feel like I’m coming up with a lot of stuff, but I’ve got to sort of implement it slowly and remember to be patient,” he said.

This story is made possible through a partnership between the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University, with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation.

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