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Students, teachers work through new challenges

By Mike Genet

For deaf and hard-of-hearing people, reading lips can be crucial for communication. 

That makes the masks and social distancing necessitated by the pandemic problematic at times.

Elizabeth Smith, elementary deaf and hard-of-hearing teacher with the Independence School District, works with William Southern fourth grader Kealicia Fetui on a lesson this week. Smith and secondary Jorjana Polman said the school year of masks has presented some teaching difficulties, but students generally have adjusted well.

Teachers in the Independence School District who specialize in deaf and hard-of-hearing education acknowledge this school year has presented some difficulties beyond the norm, but the students generally have been adjusting well.

“It’s been challenging; it’s harder to understand the kids,” said Elizabeth Smith, who works with five elementary students, helped by three interpreters in the classrooms. “When a speech pathologist is working with them, they wear a shield. There are times when you can’t stay that far away from them.”

“I have one student that has very good speech, and this year it’s been harder to progress.”

Some years, Smith said, she’s worked with as many as 14 students throughout the district’s elementary schools.

“They’ve actually been pretty go with the flow,” Smith said of her students. “They will voice that stuff might not be as clear or they’re having trouble understanding. It’s easy to advocate for them when they let us know and let teachers know.”

“We did talk a lot at the beginning of the school year about the pandemic. In the classroom, they come in and feel like this is a safe place. For the most part, when they’re getting direct service with me, they’re coming into my classroom. If the kiddo needs that communication support, that interpreter is with them. It definitely is challenging, but fortunately they have the sign language to support them.”

Jorjana Polman has two interpreters helping her work with 10 students in the middle and high schools.

“We had a few little bumps in the beginning trying to figure out what works best,” Polman said, “but they’ve adapted well and had a good attitude.

“I wear a clear face shield, and we have some teachers who wear shields or clear masks,” she said. “We tried some different products, and some of the students use some additional listening devices in addition to their own personal devices.”

With hybrid schedules and some students doing exclusively virtual learning this year, Polman said her students have been able to receive more individual attention this year, due to smaller and quieter classes.

Smith has been with Independence Schools for 15 years and Polman 19, and both formerly worked together in the Olathe School District. Neither said they had a deaf family member who led them to learn sign language and get into deaf education, as Smith decided to go that route after some preschool student teaching while in college. 

Polman, meanwhile, said her interest started in the sixth grade, when a deaf girl enrolled in her class and she raised her hand when asked if anybody knew sign language.

“I knew a few rudimentary signs, including the alphabet,” Polman said, “so they made me her study buddy. We passed notes a lot.”

“This was in the early ’80s, and they weren’t getting a lot of supports, so I wanted to do that. I had planned to work at a school for the deaf, but I was surprised to know there was such a need” at schools in general, Polman said, as a deaf school isn’t feasible – whether it be proximity or cost – for many such children.

Now, both teachers noted, technology has greatly advanced for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, helping to mitigate some communication difficulties caused by masks. 

“Over years we’ve seen more technology with amplification,” Smith said. “Through 27 years teaching, I’ve run the gamut” of teaching supports.

Plug-ins for BlueTooth and Chromebooks have also been helpful.

“Captions media is more readily available than even a few years earlier,” Polman said. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed: the great advancements in technology have been a boon for students.”

There are even several other hard-of-hearing students in the secondary levels who Polman said she rarely has to work with. They wear hearing aids but don’t require special services. 

“We do have some who still use sign language, but today’s generation of students are more accepting of differences like that, and kids are more mainstreamed earlier. When they go out into the community, that’s where we teach them to advocate for themselves.”

Polman also noted how technology simply aids teachers like her and Smith.

“Another thing that’s helped, with Facebook there’s groups for teachers like us. We can communicate with other deaf educators and learn what’s working with them and get answers quicker.”

“Otherwise, it can be lonely for us. We only have each other.”