ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — It’s hard enough for just about anyone to understand each other through a mask. Now imagine you’re a six-year-old deaf child who also struggles to learn communication.
“It’s really blocking off any visual access to facial expressions or to speech reading,” explains Anne Smolder, an itinerant teacher of the deaf. She travels to schools around the Capital Region to assist special ed programs.
NEWS10 ABC took a tour of a specially designed elementary classroom for deaf, blind, and visually and hearing impaired students at the Kevin G. Langan School, an extension of the Center for Disability Services. Teachers say switching to virtual this year was close to impossible.
“For most of our students, what we’ve seen is that virtual learning is just such a foreign idea. It can be very difficult to explain when a child has really concrete and limited vocabulary,” explains the classroom teacher Amanda Crayton. “Often times, it just felt like too big of a concept. I mean even for me, I often felt it was too big of a concept, and I have a lot more language than these kids have learned at this point.”
“It is recognized that our students, especially here or if it’s in a district special ed program, they have needs that really need to be met in person,” says Smolder.
That’s why when students come back to class Thursday, these teachers have already redesigned everything they can to accommodate the new safety measures. The challenge is most in-person methods rely heavily on touch.
“Usually, we focus on giving the student input under their hand to learn sign language, so it’s kind of like a pair of student and a teacher will be here and another pair of student and teacher will be six feet away. So those things are definitely different, I feel like a lot of times we’re on top of each other,” laughs Emma Bogardus, a speech therapist.
“I’ve been really excited trying to brainstorm different ways to go to communicate, adding in the challenge of like is this cleanable? Can I make enough that we don’t have to share it?” Crayton explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.
They’ll also rely on technology that students are already comfortable with. Such as iPad programs for sentence composition and voice amplifying devices.
“The teacher wears it and then it translates to the receivers that attached to the students hearing aids. So this is going to be really critical during this time of social distancing, because it allows the student to hear as if the teacher were right next to them,” Smolder says while demonstrating a speech amplification tool.
It can also take months to gain a student’s trust, so extra measures have been taken so the new things they may see won’t frighten them.
“A lot of our students, because they have multiple disabilities and different needs, so take some time to warm up to new people,” Smolder explains.
“Staff have taken pictures of themselves with and without the masks on and printing those out so the students can see that this is still the same person,” adds Crayton.
There will also need to be an adjustment period before expecting even the most perfectly laid in-person plans to go smoothly.
“It’s going to be an enormous challenge, especially for my students, to get them to wear a mask in any capacity,” Crayton says. “We do very slow introductions, so I know having masks available for the kids to just explore without the pressure of putting them on is a thing will try to use to get them comfortable with it.”
“We are constantly using our hands to talk and we use a lot of extreme body movements. I think one of the challenges that we’re gonna face is the change in having facial expressions,” says Bogardus.
“We have, as an agency, sort of a plan of like we try and then we can also try face shields and we just keep assessing and working as a team,” Crayton adds.
And for those students remaining virtual, the Langan School staff have done their best to get parents involved and ease as much of the children’s frustrations with change as possible.
“It’s a great opportunity for families to see and get the chance to learn more sign language, learn more about how to present material so their child, learn the value, and really get to feel it. I think most of my parents appreciate what their child is learning in school, but to do it and experience it firsthand, I think it meant a lot to a lot of families,” Crayton says.