Local students with hearing disabilities presented with new obstacles amid pandemic

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This article was published in the Telegraph Herald by Annie Mehl on November 29, 2020.

Inside his first-grade classroom at Carver Elementary School, McCoy Hubbard is mindful of the way his teacher’s lips move under the clear mask that covers her face. Her mouth is the one clue he has to decipher what she is saying.

He keeps a close eye on his peers as well in case someone waves, hoping to catch his eye. Shoulder tapping is no longer permitted in order to keep a 6-foot distance.

“McCoy is almost completely deaf in his right ear, and he is partially deaf in his left ear,” said his mom, Heather Hubbard. “He can’t hear a lawnmower without his hearing aids.”

This year, McCoy, along with many other students who are either completely deaf or hard of hearing, have needed to find new ways to look for the sounds they cannot hear.

“When he is at school, everyone is in masks, so he cannot see (their mouths),” Heather said. “Lip reading is a large part of how the deaf and hard of hearing learn.”

Staff at Dubuque Community School District have found ways around the cloth face coverings this year by wearing clear masks to help students continue to read lips and are finding ways to make virtual learning not only accessible but enjoyable.

“The clear masks are not ideal because they block a lot of sound, although it gives you access to my mouth,” said Julie Spahn, a teacher of deaf and hard of hearing students at Carver Elementary School and Roosevelt Middle School. “One of the things that worked better than I thought it would is the online learning thing because they’re at home in a listening environment that’s conducive most of the time.”

Drayden Ayers, 12, has been doing all virtual school this year using the school district’s online learning platform Edgenuity. For him, online school has been great because he is able to listen to the videos through his hearing aid as well as read the closed captioning on the screen.

“It’s definitely played to his advantage having it be virtual learning and having the closed captions,” said Drayden’s mom, Jessie Ramaker. “If he were in school, with everyone wearing a mask, it would definitely be a challenge for him.”

Megan Johannsen, a teacher of deaf and hard of hearing students for Dubuque Community School District, said teachers have taught their students how to “pin” their sign language interpreters on the screen during a Zoom meeting. Now, whenever someone is speaking, the interpreter remains front and center.

“If they were signing, it doesn’t matter who is making noise, the interpreter stays put,” she said. “That has been a really good thing with virtual learning.”

Although getting her 5-year-old daughter, Serenity, to sit in front of the computer for more than 20 minutes has been a challenge, they’ve been making it work, said her mom, Sara Haywood.

“She’s really motivated,” Haywood said. “She has her off days, but I think we’ve only had to reschedule one meeting with her speech therapist. I can’t believe the progress she’s made with virtual learning.”

Haywood said Serenity’s mask pulled the hearing aids out of her ears, so her sign language interpreter at Dubuque Community School District crocheted a button to it, so it now hooks around her ponytail.

“It really touched me with the (district) going above and beyond for her,” she said.

Matt Kennedy, assistive technology director at Dubuque Community School District, said his job is to bring to life the ideas of staff members who work with kids that are deaf or hard of hearing.

“A lot of my job has been if a teacher comes and contacts me and says, ‘I want to green screen, so I can interpret in front of a book,’ I come back and try to make that possible,” he said.

Getting into the swing of hybrid learning has taken some time for Dominic Ervolino, 10, a fifth grader at Carver Elementary School.

“The obstacle has been that routines have been interrupted for Dominic,” said his mom, Alissa. “He has been very self-motivated since he was little. He started at Carver when he was 3.”

Dominic is deaf and has a cochlear implant, an electronic device that enables him to hear, but he still relies heavily on reading lips, Ervolino said.

“This is the hardest thing for a deaf or hard of hearing person to listen to multiple things at one time,” she said. “It has been positive that there are less kids in the classroom because there is less chatter.”

Spahn said she has been teaching for 20 years now, but this year she is learning all over again.

“We have never worked harder in our careers,” she said. “We have, for months, thought about what challenges are going to come, and one of the things that I think we’ve done a really good job of as a team is advocating for our students and bringing awareness to the issue. This is affecting all of the people in our community who don’t have normal hearing, so spreading awareness and keeping that in the forefront of people’s minds has been a really important thing.”