Why the Pandemic May Have Had an Immeasurable Impact on the Deaf Community

This past year, life has not been easy for anyone. Lockdowns, social distancing, and mask mandates have taken their toll on us all. Now imagine for a moment you were someone who was deaf. Imagine you were someone who counted on seeing a person's lips move to understand what they were saying. And then imagine all of a sudden (almost) everyone in the country was wearing a mask.

This past year, life has not been easy for anyone. Lockdowns, social distancing, and mask mandates have taken their toll on us all.  Now imagine for a moment you were someone who was deaf. Imagine you were someone who counted on seeing a person's lips move to understand what they were saying. And then imagine all of a sudden (almost) everyone in the country was wearing a mask.

That's just one of the challenges Deaf students have faced in the past school year. But even as masks are coming off across the country, the past year may have already had an immeasurable impact on learning development.

For Amaui Jennings, this past school year was one to remember... and one to forget. It was her senior year of high school. But like many, Jennings experienced much of her school year virtually. Jennings attended the California School of the Deaf, Riverside (CSDR), the only Deaf school in Southern California, serving children throughout the area from K-12. 

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In the United States, 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children are born deaf in one or both ears. And more than 90% of Deaf children are born to hearing households, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

Jennings explained that it has been challenging for many of her peers to adjust to virtual learning, including herself. 

"Online school makes it difficult for the students to communicate with the teachers. Being online is difficult to catch everything taught in class because they condensed so much through Zoom lectures," Jennings said. "Being Deaf, it is easier for me to focus on what I am doing in-person, but it is different when it is online.”

Macy Pulos, a 7th grader, and her little sister Katy Pulos, a 5th grader, attend CSDR. The two sisters were adopted from India by parents Jonathan and Candice.

Macy loves science, and Katy enjoys her PE class. However, Macy could not experience a genuine science class this past year because she could not conduct many experiments. 

The two sisters did not find virtual learning to be that difficult. Still, it was an adjustment for the whole family since both sisters have different schedules. In their home, Jonathan created a light system that would flash with different colors to warn the girls that they had class. 

“These kids are quick with technology. Especially them two, they were great, and they knew their schedule. They were always on time and logged in by themselves,” Candice said.

Although Deaf students face many obstacles, one challenge that can arise when undergoing remote learning is addressing language deprivation. A child under the age of 5 who has not had experience with American Sign Language (ASL) can develop language deprivation in ASL.

"Language deprivation during the critical period appears to have permanent consequences for long-term neurological development. Neurological development can be altered to the extent that a Deaf child may be unable to develop language skills sufficient to support fluent communication or serve as a basis for further learning," according to the U.S National Library of Medicine

Although Macy and Katy have been practicing ASL for six years, they are still improving their communication. 

“Not being with their peers in-person does affect their language development. At school, you are playing with your friends all the time, and you get better at ASL. So I think at home with limited hours, the opportunities for language development are limited,” Candice said. 

Amy Kimmerle-Haggard is a middle school teacher at CSDR, teaching history and science. She explained that some of her students experience language deprivation, causing them to be behind in ASL. 

Natural language acquisition is a challenge among Deaf students because many Deaf students are born to hearing families who do not know efficient ASL. A language barrier can make it difficult for clear communication to occur among a Deaf child and parent. 

Some of Kimmerle-Haggard's students are also English-language learners, so covering Common Core standards is complex in history class.

"They need support when it comes to English with reading and writing. We haven't had the class time for a lot of those things. I have not felt satisfied with what I've provided my students. As far as the Common Core standards, I am looking forward to getting back into the classroom to be able to focus on those," Kimmerle-Haggard said. 

Teaching or learning in a class that communicates in ASL can also be strenuous. Jeremy Rogers is the chair of the ASL Interpretation and Translation Department at Mt. San Jacinto College. This past year, Rogers has adjusted his teaching to ensure all of his students comprehend the class. 

"ASL is a three-dimensional language, and we were forced to bring it to a two-dimensional platform. Face and perception are essential in the language. For many students who don't have exposure to ASL, it was difficult for them to learn the language," Rogers said.

Rogers finds himself teaching via Zoom and turning 360 degrees in his living room so his students can see all angles of the signs. He even purchased a 70-inch television to see all of his students' hands and facial expressions. 

Using technology can be effective. However, it can be challenging when using ASL to communicate. 

"For communication, it is such an overlooked way of being together. However, communication for Deaf people relies on maintaining eye contact, and that's been sort of lost," Kavita Pipalia, the President of the California Association of the Deaf said. 

Communication loss can also occur using online platforms because of a lack of internet connection. If a Deaf student does not have a good internet connection and the video begins to freeze, causing them to miss part of the lesson. Similarly, when the spotlight feature is on in Zoom, the speaker will be highlighted, but the interpreter will not be in a permanent spot, and the student can get lost. 

Visual information availability is crucial for a Deaf individual. A hearing student can write notes as they listen, not relying on receiving information visually. Nevertheless, if a Deaf student looks down to write something, they only capture 40% of the information, Vice President at CAD, Jermaine Cornish, explained. 

"When you are Deaf, you are completely reliant on visual and textile access to the world," Cornish said.

A year of isolation and virtual learning may have caused or heightened adverse mental health effects among students. Jennings explained she had witnessed a lot of her peers' mental health depleting this past school year.

"You see a loss in motivation. People are falling behind in their homework. There is no sense in teamwork. It is harder to focus because you are in your home, and there is no designated space," Jennings said. 

Kimmerle-Haggard believes she has referred more students to counseling this past year. Each week, she meets with her students individually to check in on their schoolwork and emotional well-being. 

"It depends on what the student's home life is like and how much support they have. Many of our students are doing great, but having that check-in with the teachers and knowing that we're there for them has been great too," Kimmerle-Haggard said.

This year has taught Kimmerle-Haggard the importance of parents' and teachers' relationships to create a dialogue about the child. 

"Teachers are going to champion their students the way they always do and make sure students have the experiences they need," Kimmerle-Haggard said.

Vice Chair of Mental Health Task Force at CAD, Noel King, explained that factors such as communication barriers, lack of support services, societal pressures, inability to cope with personal issues might result in mental health illnesses.

"When someone feels secluded from everybody else, they feel like their language isn't as easily accessible, or the communication access isn't there either. They start developing anger, frustration or depression," King said. 

King explained that mental health illnesses such as anxiety and depression are common, including an increase in stressors. 

"Deaf children have felt this, even pre-COVID. They have felt that trauma developing. Deaf children have an increasing trauma because the communication is not there. I believe that there's a high probability that this trauma is going to be long-term,” King said.

King emphasizes that guardians should check on their kids to ensure they are doing well emotionally, mentally, and physically. 

"Make sure that you check on your kids. Many parents don't take notes of what their kids are eating or what their sleep schedule is like, and it needs to be a consistent focus on the children. Focus on what the child is going through, take the initiative to be able to check in on them," King said.