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For Deaf Students, eLearning and Masks Increase Challenges

In New Mexico’s deaf schools, e-learning loses the immersive environment that helps students learn American Sign Language. But even for in-person lessons, masks hide many of the facial expressions that ASL relies on.

(TNS) — The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on New Mexico students, and school districts have already begun the difficult task of submitting reentry plans that maintain student and teacher safety.

But serving 120 deaf and hard-of-hearing students who live all across the state presents its own unique challenges during the pandemic, whether instruction happens in person or online.

The Board of Regents for the New Mexico School for the Deaf on Friday approved the school’s reentry plan, which states classrooms will remain virtual until at least Sept. 8, in compliance with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s orders.

Educators in various school districts have voiced concerns about the difficulties of online learning, many of which NMSD shares, including short attention spans and technological issues. In addition, NMSD officials say the immersive environment of the school, which can help students better learn American Sign Language, could also be impacted.

“It’s not as constant as when they’re on campus,” NMSD Superintendent Rosemary Gallegos sad. “That’s a drawback with distance learning.”

Many students, Gallegos said, are not fluent in ASL when they arrive at the school, but constantly communicating with peers and teachers in ASL can increase comprehension over time.

Board President Nathan Gomme, who is also executive director of the New Mexico Commission for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said he attended a school for deaf children and the immersive environment can be critical to a child’s understanding.

“My involvement in that school was at a later age and if I didn’t have that support from the group of students, it’s very possible I would’ve lost out on the access and a lot of the understanding of the language,” Gomme said.

Like many other schools, NMSD also has a plan for a possible hybrid class model.

Under that plan, as early as Sept. 8, students would have the option to attend in-person classes at the school’s Santa Fe campus. Those living within a 60-mile radius could be transported by the school to the campus each day or their families would be reimbursed for driving.

For students living farther away, NMSD has discussed sending staff members to cities around the state to run learning hubs that students can go to.

All students have the option of staying online. Student dorms, where out-of-town students usually live, will not be open.

However, in-person classes raise another potential issue: masks and other face-coverings.

ASL relies heavily on facial expressions in its grammar, which can indicate someone’s intent, such as telling a joke or asking a question. Many deaf and hard of hearing people also rely on reading lips for context clues when communicating. Wearing a mask can complicate all of that.

NMSD Elementary Principal Scott Mohan, speaking through an interpreter, said ASL with masks is especially hard for those learning the language.

“As a native speaker of American Sign Language, there are times when a person is wearing a mask and I can follow along pretty well,” he said. “People who aren’t native users of the language may struggle more.”

In response, NMSD has purchased clear masks, face shields and plexiglass for teachers to stand behind, so that a person’s mouth can remain visible. Gallegos said masks can’t be worn when communicating on Zoom, because it can make it even harder to understand.

While acknowledging the challenges, Gallegos said she believes NMSD will still be ready to serve families and provide essential learning to students.

“It’s not the best, but everyone has to give a little bit during this time,” Gallegos said.

©2020 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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