Here's How Texas' Schools For The Deaf And Blind Stay Connected To Students During The Pandemic

May 22, 2020

High school senior Rey Garza knows a lot about adapting to “new normals.” He was 9 when he lost vision in his right eye, and when he entered his freshman year, he started losing it in his left eye, too. 

He had to learn how to navigate life with a visual impairment, figuring out how to orient himself in public places and how to communicate his needs with his parents and teachers. When it became clear his school in McAllen didn’t have the support he needed, his family uprooted and moved to Austin so he could attend the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. 

Rey didn’t want to come at first. The school sounded restrictive and foreign.

“Then when I got there, I was like, ‘This is actually the complete opposite,’” he said. “It was the best thing ever because I became part of a community that I had no idea existed.”

His final year, though, came with another curveball: the coronavirus pandemic. Like other students in Texas, Rey and his classmates didn’t return to school after spring break. Instead, they transitioned to distance learning: checking in with teachers online and completing assignments from home.

“Probably the most challenging part about this is finding a schedule to do everything, because I’m so used to it happening throughout the day, like I have a class period for this and a class period for that,” Rey said.

Senior Rey Garza says he discovered a community he never knew existed at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

The school reached out to make sure he had all the technology he needed — a computer and a device that writes in braille. His art teacher even sent home a weaving kit so he could still complete assignments.

Unlike most other public schools in Texas, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired takes in students from across the state. During the school year, students who don’t already live in Austin stay in dorms throughout the week and go back to their hometowns on weekends. About 145 students are enrolled in the on-campus program during the school year, and about 180 others attend the school's summer program. The school also serves as a support to the more than 11,000 students with visual impairments across Texas. 

"[The students are] all over the state, so it's hard to help them feel connected, I think. But whether they are 3,000 miles away or next door, I think it's hard for all of our kids right now."

When the campus closed, TSBVI staff spent time making sure students across the state had the technology to learn from home.

“We shipped out I don’t know how many boxes of stuff to our kids, whether it’s hard copy braille or a specific device they might have left at school,” Superintendent Emily Coleman said. “We sent some families hotspots so they could access Wi-Fi.”

At TSBVI, distance learning can look different for every student, since some have multiple disabilities. Many have been logging in and out of Zoom meetings and emailing back and forth with professors, using adaptive screen-reading technology. In other cases, teachers have coached parents on how to guide students through their assignments, so those who can’t access technology on their own can get more hands-on support. 

The hardest part has been the isolation, Coleman says. 

“They’re all over the state, so it’s hard to help them feel connected I think,” she said. “But whether they are 3,000 miles away or next door, I think it’s hard for all of our kids right now.”

To try to make up for that, Coleman streams morning announcements on Facebook. The superintendent lives on campus, so she records from different parts of the school – the auditorium, the gymnasium, the animal care center. Staff have also been running social groups online for students, and the school hosted a virtual prom on Zoom. Students dressed up and danced in their living rooms.

“It was a great way for the kids to interact with each other and for the staff to see a lot of the students,” Coleman said. “It was really good for all of us to have that.”

'A 24/7 Communication Environment'

When the pandemic hit, the Texas School for the Deaf found itself in a similar situation. The school has about 550 students from across the state, about 220 of whom live on campus during the school year. Superintendent Claire Bugen said TSD shipped technology to students who needed it and helped parents connect to the internet if they didn’t have it already. Online learning isn’t the same, though.

“They’re missing that in-person sign language support where you can repeat, rephrase and clarify,” Bugen said. “Sometimes that’s hard to do in distance learning, and sometimes the curriculum materials aren’t always captioned, so they’re a little more difficult to use online for deaf or hard of hearing kids.”

Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

And then, of course, there’s the social isolation. At TSD, everyone from the school counselor to the cafeteria employees use sign language.

“When they’re on campus, it’s a 24/7 communication environment,” Bugen said. “Not every child has that luxury in their home, so that’s been a big difficult transition for us.”

For senior Ashlene Etkie, it’s been heartbreaking to miss out on senior year traditions, like the senior trip and graduation. Ashlene is a third-generation TSD student, and her three older siblings attended the school, as well.

“Pre-COVID, I would say I was really looking forward to our senior trip because that’s when all of our class gets together,” she said through an interpreter. “I know my parents still talk about their senior trip. My siblings still talk about their senior trip.”

Before the pandemic, Ashlene was used to staying after school for basketball practice, track meets or softball games. But all of that was cut short in March. Her life shifted as she – and her parents, who are both teachers at the school – transitioned to online learning. Her classes became self-paced, and she found it more difficult to focus without any differentiation between classwork and homework.

“I’d definitely say that the most difficult part is finding the motivation, especially with the environment: We’re all here trying to do this all in the same space,” Ashlene said.

While she’s watched her older siblings cross the stage at graduation, she won’t get to do that herself next week. She’s hopeful for a postponed in-person graduation, but for now, students will be participating in a virtual one online. 

“It’s very disappointing that I’m not going to be able to actually walk the stage next week,” Ashlene said. “Ultimately, we want to keep everyone safe, so that’s how we’re trying to keep a positive outlook on it.”

Gaps In Learning

TSD usually hosts summer programs as well, but the school decided to cancel them because of the pandemic. The programs include camps on deaf identity and culture, a family weekend retreat and extended learning for students who may have fallen behind on their individual learning goals. 

“That’s really very sad for so many kids across the state of Texas because our summer programs are open to deaf and hard of hearing kids that do not attend TSD and attend school in their local districts,” Bugen said. “So that’s a big loss to those students.”

The school is still working on what the fall semester will look like. Bugen said the school has a lot to consider.

“Being a residential school, you can imagine we have any number of things to look at, like health and wellness – how will we screen kids when they come back from all across the state?” she said. “Some kids will be coming from high-impact areas, some from areas where there are no cases. … Will we have access to testing as a school, because we are residential? We have no idea.”

No matter what the next semester looks like, though, the school is going to have to address gaps in learning, Bugen said. That could mean a different calendar that provides more instructional time and flexibility for any possible resurgence in COVID-19 cases.

"We do have some students that rely on human contact, not just for their well-being, but for their way of doing almost anything. So I think that's a challenge we will have to recognize and accommodate for."

Bugen says she’s also looking at adaptive facial coverings for her students. Health officials recommend wearing them to help slow the spread of the virus in public spaces, but they can hinder communication for American Sign Language users. 

“ASL is such a visual, gestural language that uses facial expression, eyebrow raising, all kinds of mouth movements and lip reading, so it is really, really difficult for deaf people to wear masks, and that’s something we’re going to have to confront as we reopen,” Bugen said. 

TSBVI is also not sure what the fall will look like. Coleman said she’s encouraging staff to make two plans –one for what the semester would look like virtually and one for in person.

“I think our school has done a phenomenal job, but I think with anything, whenever you do something for the first time you can always improve on it, so that’ll be our conversations for next year: How can we make remote learning better?” Coleman said. “No matter what we do, there’s going to be some gaps, but how can we minimize that or step up our game?”

And if they do come back to campus, Coleman said, social distancing won’t be possible for some students. Those who are deaf-blind communicate with tactile sign language.

“We do have some students that rely on human contact, not just for their well-being, but for their way of doing almost anything,” Coleman said. “So I think that’s a challenge we will have to recognize and accommodate for.”

The fall is also uncertain for Rey. He’s graduating from TSBVI next week – virtually – and has been accepted to Texas State University in the fall. But he doesn’t know how classes will work in a pandemic. 

“If things smoothen out, and I can actually physically attend my school, I’m both excited and a little nervous,” he said. “On one hand I really look forward to going and … essentially living for myself and doing a lot of things for myself. On the other hand, I’m also really nervous because all of that is going to happen at once, and it’s going to be a lot to handle.”

But Rey, the valedictorian of his graduating class, says TSBVI has helped him learn how to adjust to new situations. These strange two months have also taught him a thing or two.

“It’s a little challenging and it’s a little scary, but we’re still getting things done, and we still have a way to communicate,” he said. “I’ve learned definitely that it’s possible to adapt, even in the most unpredictable of times.” 

Got a tip? Email Marisa Charpentier at mcharpentier@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.

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