For Deaf Students, Pandemic-era Schooling Creates Extra Barriers

Like most New York City parents, Silvy Salgeo grappled with what to do when Mayor Bill De Blasio announced that schools would be re-opening this fall.

She combed through public health data, read up on protocol and worried about what kind of masks her son’s teachers would wear—a factor that could make or break her decision: Her 6-year-old son Russell is deaf and relies heavily on lip-reading.

As New York City’s children dive into an unprecedented kind of schooling, Russell and the city’s other deaf students are losing access to many of the resources they need to be successful. Besides obscured faces, for example, some students are losing in-person access to teachers of the deaf due to limits on the number of people in the classroom. 

Salgeo spent the better part of August entreating teachers at her son’s public school in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to wear clear, plastic masks in class instead of cloth face coverings. 

“It’s a little tricky for me to understand when people wear a mask,” Russell told his mom in response to a reporter’s question.

Salgeo’s hard work paid off: When Russell returned to school in-person in late September, he could see his teachers’ faces. But she still has concerns. 

For one thing, “with the clear masks, you have to worry about them fogging up,” she said. 

Then there’s the noise issue. Teachers open windows to circulate air and may run fans. Her son’s cochlear implant, a small surgically implanted device that stimulates the auditory nerve, picks up all kinds of noise.

“You breathe, you stand up, you drop a pen on the floor, it picks up all these sounds and it can be very distracting. It makes it harder for him to know what’s going on,” she said.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 12 out of every 1,000 people below age 18 is deaf. New York State reported 4,166 deaf and hearing-impaired students statewide in 2018. Cindy Casson, community relations director for Lexington School of the Deaf, said she didn’t believe data was available on the number of deaf or hearing-impaired students in the city.

The Department of Education didn’t respond to multiple phone calls seeking information.

Even before the pandemic, deaf students on average attained lower levels of education than hearing people, according to the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes. Equal education for deaf students has been contested for generations. The National Association of the Deaf reports that only in 1997 were key stipulations added to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to recognize the unique communication needs of deaf children at school. 

Deaf students use a number of services, including sign language interpreters; FM systems, which transmit sound to a variety of hearing assistive devices; and closed captioning on screens. School systems have been working on providing better accommodations for deaf students, but the pandemic has created new barriers.

Heidi Corce, a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing in the Lane Regional Program in Eugene, Ore., teaches a Zoom class for students.  (Photo/Courtesy of Heidi Corce)

Stella Benezra, a teacher of the deaf in Manhattan, said only one of the six schools she works in has committed to using clear masks. And she’d like them to use something different: a face shield paired with a chin cloth, as recommended in an August study by The Moog Center for Deaf Education.

The combination both protects against COVID-19 transmission and allows students to lip read, microphones to transmit properly, and facial cues to be recognized.

“It’s the best thing for our students, but I don’t know of any schools that are able to do this,” Benezra said. “Unfortunately, it’s just not the priority if there are only a few deaf students in the classroom.”

Benezra typically travels between schools to provide in-class support for deaf children, but with current public health protocols, she won’t be able to do that. Instead, she and her colleagues will only be able to connect with students virtually. The lack of access will be a “huge disadvantage” for her students, she said.

Ellie Tunison, a teacher of the deaf in Brooklyn, worries the changed classroom environment will affect her students’ self-esteem. Many deaf students lip-read to communicate, and without plastic face coverings in the classroom, they may have limited access to language.

“That is a huge loss if you’ve grown up your entire life being able to lip-read,” she said.

Shari Harpaz, a Manhattan-based speech language pathologist, has other concerns about masks.   

“Hearing-impaired children can’t pick up on vocal inflections,” she said. “Often the smiles, the exaggerated facial expressions, show the emotion of a sentence that’s being signed. That gets lost if you don’t have the whole face to give you that cue.”

Advocates for young deaf children are also grappling with the level of understanding students may have surrounding the pandemic.  

 “We know students understand they have to wear a mask, but we’re not confident they understand why, because a lot of their parents might not have the level of sign language it takes to really explain,” said Heidi Corce, who sits on the board of The American Society for Deaf Children.

Corce, who is deaf herself and works as a teacher of the deaf in Eugene, Ore., is also concerned about students feeling isolated. 

“Connecting with other deaf people to chat and share information is really important. That used to naturally happen throughout the school day, but now it is much harder.”

“It’s understandable that there are many logistics to work out for all students,” said Benezra. “But it feels like there isn’t a lot of understanding about how important services are for these kids.”