Lines of communication

Michael Smith
A guest of the Oklahoma School for the Deaf watches a video of upcoming facilities during a January presentation. The Sulphur campus has been closed to students since March 12.

Every school has faced similar challenges during a pandemic that emptied campuses nationwide in early March. Student engagement and technology issues remained at the forefront of the talks about how distance education would play out for the final months of the school year.

For administrators, teachers, students, and parents at one school in Sulphur, however, those talks — like many other talks — were a little bit different.

“We are always fighting language deprivation, even when times are normal and times are good,” said Chris Dvorak, Superintendent for the Oklahoma School for the Deaf.

For that reason, Dvorak and his staff put a heavy emphasis on communication once the inkling of distance learning was discussed early in the pandemic. While the challenges varied depending on grades, the focus on communication helped lead the school through an abrupt transition that moved students away from their home away from home.

Fourth grade teacher Lauren Mathis just finished her second year at OSD and described distance learning as “a very interesting process.” She said communication with students and parents was at least weekly and, for some parents, even daily.

Considering the one-on-one education that deaf and hard-of-hearing students receive, Mathis said her classroom has six students. That is a fraction of the largest fourth grade classrooms in the region but was still not immune to the impact of student engagement after distance learning was implemented.

She said some families admitted difficulty in finding time to complete assignments. Mathis understood that some of her students would have to spend time in day care or other situations that may not allow for parents to help with guided online lessons.

Some of her students turned in nearly every assignment while others did about half, but Mathis said every student regularly attended virtual classes and tried to submit work daily. She said parents had her cell phone number and would call about assignments or with general questions.

The communication between teachers, students and parents remained important. “I would say that was the biggest challenge, we just have a different style of communication,” she said. “Even Zoom, as great as it was, it was still a challenge to keep up with conversations and things like that.”

Special Education Director Stacy Edgar said the school was somewhat prepared for distance learning considering its access to technology before the pandemic. As a one-to-one school, every OSD student and teacher was issued an iPad and learning platforms like IXL and ABC Mouse were already implemented at the beginning of the school year.

Before spring break, when school closures were first being considered, staff knew that students would have to be sent home with their devices in the event they did not return. Edgar said that even though students and teachers were already familiar with the online platforms, some of the specialized teaching methods would be lost without a certain level of interaction.

“I think it definitely has been a struggle to make sure that they have the kind of quality education and connection that they would have on campus,” she said.

The type of education taught to the roughly 120 deaf or hard-of-hearing students from pre-kindergarten up through 12th grade is unlike most other schools. Most OSD students spend weekdays living on campus to interact with fellow students and staff that use American Sign Language to communicate -- in many instances as an exclusive form of communication.

The campus is specifically designed for students that cannot rely on sound for communication, and includes strobe lights to replace class bells and upgraded outdoor lights to aid with nighttime communication via ASL. Normally a sprawling facility with groups of students on playgrounds or hallways, Dvorak said the campus has not held a student since March 12.

“It was a ghost town and it was surreal to know that the school year was still ongoing and there were no kids here,” said Dvorak.

Roland Potter should have already walked across the stage and received his high school diploma earlier this month, but instead he will have to wait until the rescheduled June 6 ceremony. Like most seniors this year, he’s extremely disappointed how the school year ended.

“I just wish everything [would] go back to normal,” he said via text message Friday.

The “normal” for Potter and other deaf or hard-of-hearing students at OSD is unlike that for a vast majority of high school students across the state. The coronavirus not only shuttered classrooms, it closed down the two dormitory buildings that housed over 100 OSD students this year.

Instead of finishing the school year on campus and among staff and classmates that use ASL, he returned home where he is the only hard-of-hearing person in his family. He is also the only person in Holdenville, in Hughes County, that uses ASL.

“A lot of our kids struggle with isolation and this is an oasis of inclusion, of access and just the ability to interact with other people,” Dvorak said. “Our biggest disappointment is that they are probably not experiencing that and won’t be able to until we come back in August, and that is the most frustrating part about this.”

The school does still have resources available to help the students deal with isolation while they’re away from fellow students. Dvorak said two counselors and a psychologist continue to provide support, and Edgar said speech therapists have continued working with some of their students.

The pandemic has caused problems in other ways that schools may have a difficult time addressing. Potter said he can normally navigate and interact with people who can hear thanks to a hearing aid and the ability to read lips. As face masks become more prevalent, that task becomes even more difficult.

“Sometime I can understand but most time I don't,” he said.

The pandemic has also disrupted summer plans at OSD. Edgar said a nearly 20-year summer camp hosted at the campus for all deaf or hard-of-hearing children in Oklahoma has been canceled for the first time. An education course for ASL interpreters from multiple states has also been moved exclusively online.

The professional development camp and summer camp normally coincide with each other to provide regular opportunities for members of the deaf community to interact and communicate. Dvorak estimated about 50 interpreters have still signed up for virtual education courses this year.

Teachers and administration indicated that weekly meetings will continue through the summer to monitor the pandemic and prepare for a new school year. Plans are still being discussed regarding prom and, much like any other Oklahoma school, communication continues at OSD.

But unlike many schools, the bond between students and staff at OSD comes from a mutual respect for that communication and not taking it for granted.

“I like to say that we’re more of a family than we are a school because our teachers are around a lot of the students five day a week,” said Edgar.

“Teachers and staff members make us feel welcome make sure we good and safe,” said Potter. “[W]e a family.”