When Amanda Cooper found out her 8-year-old son Cason, who is Deaf, wasn’t returning to in-person school in March she said she immediately felt afraid.
“That is the best way that I know how to describe it,” Cooper, who is hearing, told CBS News. Her family moved to St. Augustine, Florida, so Cason would be able to attend Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind and be immersed in ASL and Deaf culture. “It was just extremely frightening. I know within my heart that I could not provide Cason with what he needed, as much as the teachers at his school could,” she added.
And she likely wasn’t the only parent who felt this way.
This spring, millions of children across the country went from seeing their peers and teachers each day in-person, to largely interacting behind a computer screen. For many kids in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, their families and educators, the pandemic brought about a unique set of challenges — many centered around access.
Communication and Language Access
American Sign Language (ASL), just like any other language, can take years to learn. Since over 90% of children who are deaf being born to hearing parents, there can be a language gap at home.
Heidi Corce teaches students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing ranging from kindergarten through fifth grade within a mainstream elementary school in Eugene, Oregon. Corce, who is Deaf, told CBS News that her school, Spring Creek Elementary, closed in-person classes in March and they are still remote learning this fall.
Corce said staff only had about one day’s notice before leaving school. So, the day before they left, she said she tossed out her lesson plans and spent the time explaining to her students what was going on, not only with school, but the coronavirus pandemic as a whole.
“A lot of Deaf and Hard of Hearing students, many of them, not all of them, but many of their parents don’t sign well enough to have conversation about bigger events and explaining why,” Corce told CBS News. “I wanted to make sure I had that opportunity to sit down with the kids and explain in ASL what’s happening, why we’re not coming back to school and draw pictures to explain, because COVID itself, I mean, it’s really abstract, as a concept.”
Cooper said she has been learning ASL since Cason was identified as being Deaf at 3 years old, but she isn’t completely fluent yet. Her fiance and 3-year-old son, who are both hearing as well, are also learning to sign and the family communicates using ASL whenever Cason is present.
“But that’s still not enough time,” she explained. “And there’s still so much I have to learn. And when you put in schooling a child and talking about science and talking about math, and all these different subjects that I honestly don’t know how to sign all of that. Yes, it is much different. And it was very hard for me, but I did it.”
Once Cooper’s initial fear dissipated she said she “knew I had to just hop in.” Cooper, who is a nurse, said Cason’s school sent home a curriculum each week for parents to follow and she adapted to the new normal, creating daily schedules for him until the end of the school year this spring.
She added that Cason also continued to have access to language while remote learning through his school since all of his teachers know ASL.
However, the initial concern over communication access in the home environment isn’t universal.
Shae Osborne Crook, who is Deaf and the mother of three kids who are Deaf ages 10 to 17, said her family was “okay” with the news that school would be switching to online-only in the spring and adapted “very well.”
“The benefit, actually, was with my children is that they have me, a Deaf mom and their father is fluent in American Sign Language, he’s actually an interpreter,” the Alabama native said. “So they had full communication access. So that was a benefit to them, there was no loss of that.”
Access to Peers & the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community
The switch to remote learning and the need for social distancing continues to limit many kids’ ability to interact with their peers in-person. And that lack of in-person engagement has had a social impact on many students in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, Nancy Hlibok Amann, Ph.D, the superintendent of California School for the Deaf, Riverside (CSDR), told CBS News.
CSDR is an ASL and English bilingual day and residential public school serving about 400 students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing, ranging from 3 to 21 years old and coming from 12 counties in the state, according to its website.
“The ability to converse with their peers is limited at best during this time,” said Hlibok Amann, who is Deaf. Students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing with hearing families who do not communicate using ASL can feel especially isolated.
“As siblings — when you go out, you talk and you play with your neighbors. You might interact by riding bikes together. Moreoften than not that Deaf child is left out of that experience,” Hlibok Amann said. “And their thought process, I mean, they get lost in their thoughts, they truly do. And they become even more isolated with that. And the question starts to go, ‘Am I missing this? What am I missing out on?’ And that is just such a burden to their mental health.”
She explained that CSDR, which went fully remote in March and remains online only this fall, has a team of school counselors and social workers on 24/7 to communicate with students who may be feeling this way, among other resources.
She stressed that the pandemic doesn’t impact all students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing in the same way — with age and language access playing a role in its effects. Students who have full communication access at home and can interact virtually with peers are “doing fine,” but are still frustrated they can’t be with their friends in person, Hlibok Amann said.
But, she continued, while many students communicate with each other virtually, it’s just not the same as being in the same place together. “Deaf kids need their peers, there is no question about it,” she added. “And that has to happen through physical engagement, interaction.”
Osborne Crook said that while her kids are “fortunate” to have parents and siblings who are fluent in ASL, they still felt the effects of not being able to interact with their peers in-person.
“Even if my children have the benefit of a Deaf family, they’re very athletic, very sociable, like social butterflies. And so of course, this does have a huge impact with them, staying home for seven months, they became very restless,” she explained. “And we were fortunate to have a big backyard and a swimming pool. But even so, I mean, the social needs were not met.”
She added, “I’m sure there was absolutely some negative impacts from the pandemic.”
All three of Osborne Crook’s children have since returned to in-person school at the Alabama School for the Deaf this fall.
Cooper told CBS News she doesn’t believe the pandemic has had a negative impact on her son, Cason, but that’s because she decided to send him back to in-person school in August.
“Yes, he gets socialization with his friends in his neighborhood, but they don’t — they do try to sign, but they do not, they do not sign,” she said. “Whereas at school, he goes and he is in an all-inclusive environment. So everybody is signing, everyone can communicate, and that’s what Cason needs.”
She added, “I think if it went a little bit longer, as I said earlier, that, yeah, he could have truly been affected by this pandemic.”
But, for some students returning to in-person classes isn’t an option and educators are doing their best to ensure all students continue to feel connected to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.
CSDR is conducting various after school programs for its students via Zoom from workouts to culinary lessons, among other resources, Hlibok Amann said. “If we did not have that opportunity, I think some students would be reaching out to their teachers even more so — just to be able to have that conversation, the ability to have organic conversation, because at the end of the day, they’re just very lonely at home,” she explained.
Corce said she is continuing to host a weekly “Deaf Club” via Zoom, where students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing of all ages in the school, and who are homeschooled, can come together. The club once took place in-person during the school year, but was transitioned to online-only this spring.
She said some of her students’ families tell her the club is “the one thing their kids look forward to.”
“Deaf Club is probably one of the most important times of their school day or week where they have access to Deaf culture, signing adults and their peers,” Corce said. “And you can’t really get that any other time.”
Access to Technology
Another new change the pandemic brought about was an increased use of technology for many students.
Corce, who is also a board member for the organization American Society for Deaf Children, told CBS News she was concerned online learning may not be as accessible to her students, compared to their hearing peers. There are currently 13 students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing enrolled at the elementary school this school year, she said.
She explained that in her experience, things happen “faster” during Zoom meetings, with people speaking over one another more often, less downtime and other issues, which can make it difficult to follow along.
Her students have access to ASL interpreters, closed captioning and other resources, but “there are always technical glitches that prevent students from fully accessing them at times,” Corce explained. She also added that distance learning is “already overwhelming” for many students and their families, so often the supports aren’t being “fully accessed or utilized” as they would be in-person.
Corce and her educational assistant are continuing to incorporate many visual elements, which are crucial to teaching students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing, while remote learning, including video stories in sign language to explain concepts, such as wearing masks.
Hlibok Amann said she was initially concerned that her students would have access to technology — but once CSDR ensured all students received their school-issued iPads at home, they were “immediately able to transition” to online learning.
However, she elaborated, remote learning just isn’t the same as being in a physical classroom.
“They’re visual learners here. So it requires one-on-one opportunities, where you can go into great detail with the concepts. The Deaf community values very much human connection,” she said, adding, “Now going virtually, students feel that they’re losing that — engaging through a screen. And they have those human connection experiences through the screen. But quite honestly, it’s not the same, it’s not equivalent to that classroom experience.”
Face Masks & their Effect on Language Access
For many kids who are deaf and hard of hearing who do return to the classroom, or even just walk down the street, another challenge awaits — face masks.
Osborne Crook explained face masks, especially cloth masks, have been a “huge negative impact” on her and her kids, as they cover the mouth, an “important feature” of ASL.
“Adverbs and adjectives are indicated through mouth morphemes,” she explained to CBS News. “A mask covering the mouth obstructs language. The mouth is also a discourse marker — an important feature in a conversation or discourse.”
Opaque masks in particular also make it difficult to see facial expressions and make it impossible for people in the community who know how to lipread to do so.
She explained that when she and her family are walking around town, the usage of masks can make it difficult to tell if others are trying to communicate with them. “We don’t know, are people talking to me? Or are they making a face at me?” Osborne Crook said. Her kids are “very unsure of themselves,” she said.
“Before, if you’re walking and we see someone making eye contact, we would know that, okay, they’re directing their eye contact at me,” she said. “But could they be talking in their Bluetooth behind their masks that we can’t see and that’s why they’re making those facial expressions? We can’t determine that with those cloth masks.”
Osborne Crook also said the use of face masks have impacted her kids at school. She said when her two oldest kids first returned to school at the end of September, educators were wearing cloth masks, making them difficult to understand in some cases.
“My children would come home and they’re like, ‘I don’t know exactly what that teacher was saying.’ And they were very upset with it,” Osborne Crook said. “Especially if it’s a teacher who isn’t the most fluent in American Sign Language, they struggled even more.”
Clear masks or face shields can help alleviate the communication barrier, Osborne Crook said, but she urged people to remove their masks, when it is safe to do so, to eliminate the issue altogether.
Interpretation for Shae Osborne Crook provided by Daniel Maffia and interpretation for Nancy Hlibok Amann, Ph.D, provided by Mara Bowdidge.
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