Masks, virtual classes are challenging for Louisiana students who can’t hear or see

By: - July 27, 2021 7:00 am

Senior art wall at the Louisiana School for the Deaf (Photo by Leslie Hill/LSDVI)

BATON ROUGE – The requirements to submit to daily temperature checks, wear masks, repeatedly wash hands and stay apart from one another has made education in the time of the novel coronavirus tedious and difficult for all students. However, students whose hearing or vision is impaired have had even more challenges to endure to learn in a safe and healthy environment.  After making it through one complete pandemic school year, those students are gearing up to begin yet another one as an even more frightening fourth wave of the novel coronavirus has hit Louisiana harder than any other state.

It was relatively early during the pandemic that the Centers for Disease Control recommended that people wear masks in public places, and during a spike of cases in July 2020, Gov. John Bel Edwards imposed a statewide mask mandate.   Students returning to school the next month were made to follow it.

But masks, as necessary as they’ve been, create a real problem at the Louisiana School for the Deaf, said Dr. Heather Laine, director of the school.

“The students are deaf so they depend on visuals,” Laine said. “And with masks, it blocks part of their face. They’re not able to see mouth movements. With our students, they want to take their masks off while they’re walking around. They have to have it on regardless.” 

The school tries to work around this by allowing students to remove their masks when they are safely distanced from others. 

“If you’re sitting there six feet apart and you’re signing, you can remove your mask and the teacher stays in front of the classroom,” Laine said. “So they’re seeing all those visual cues and gestures while signing so they have all the visual access to sign language.”

Clear masks didn’t live up to their promise, Laine said. “Having a see-through mask was a bit foggy from the breath and then also the sweat from the face, it was holding the moisture. So it would tend to fog up and you wouldn’t be able to use the featured mask portion well.”

It’s fairly hard to do virtual instruction when you cannot be hands-on, right there with the teacher, like it is for every student. But when you have visual impairment, it adds another level to that.

– Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired faculty member Nancy Rawls

At the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, keeping students six feet apart has been a challenge, said faculty member Nancy Rawls. The school staggered the entrances students would go in or out of to decrease traffic in the halls, she said, but students sometimes struggled to stay apart from one another.

“They can tell by how close a person’s voice is, but it is definitely a challenge,” Rawls said. “Most of them use white canes so that can also help them. If their cane hits someone, they know they’re closer than five feet away.”

Rawls stressed that the school has kept very strict safety measures, as their neighbors at the Louisiana School for the Deaf have done and that those safety measures have not changed with the recent rise in COVID-19 cases. 

“We were continuing to wear masks, social distance (and) be careful when we go off campus,” Rawls said. “It didn’t really impact us because we had not lifted any of our mitigation measures.”

Ellen Travis, student health center nurse manager for both schools, said the schools have made COVID-19 vaccines available to the students and staff, but vaccination is not required. The schools don’t keep records of vaccination rates among faculty and students, she said, and instead make safety precautions a top priority.

Both the School for the Deaf (which has 103 students ages 3-22) and the School for the Visually Impaired (which has 75 students) have options for students to live on campus.  Those dormitories were restricted to 50% capacity last year, and the schools intend to keep the 50% percent capacity for the upcoming school year.

LSD plans on keeping safety precautions in place, with enforced masking on campus, physical distancing and temperature checks. A UV light had also been placed in the ventilation system to help the disinfection and cleaning process. At LSVI, safety precautions have also been kept in place since last year. 

Students at both schools have participated in virtual learning, but that method isn’t problem free. Deaf students were able to see visual cues safely on the screen, but, like their hearing counterparts, they missed out on socialization. At LSVI, watching a screen isn’t an option. At one point, students were sent home with braillers, which allowed them to type their papers and send in hard copies to the school, but Rawls said online learning still proved challenging.  

“It’s fairly hard to do virtual instruction when you cannot be hands-on, right there with the teacher, like it is for every student,” Rawls said. “But when you have visual impairment, it adds another level to that.” 

Travis said the schools tried to help with the social and emotional impact of the pandemic by offering many virtual services and also by giving students access to counselors. 

“Their whole lives had been changed on a dime is probably what it felt like,” Travis said. “One day the world was open and the next day it was closed.” 

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

Rachel Mipro is a contributing reporter to the Illuminator. She has previous experience at WBRZ and The Reveille and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Louisiana State University. At LSU, she worked as an opinion editor for The Reveille and as a nonfiction editor for the university’s creative writing journal. In her free time, she enjoys baking, Netflix and hiking.