The effects of social isolation on kids and teens have been a concern for educators since Pitt County Schools closed their doors in March to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. But for some students who are deaf or hearing impaired, distance learning has opened a world of opportunity to connect with others who are like them.
For the last eight weeks, local deaf and hard of hearing students have been getting together for lunch in online meetings that have put them in touch with students from nearly a dozen states and several locations abroad. With technical assistance from their teachers and sign language interpreters, the students are able to meet twice a week for a video conference, where they play games and share cultural experiences.
The meetings, simply known as Deaf Chat & Eat Zoom, were launched by Megan Pender, PCS teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing. Pender and fellow educator Elizabeth D’cosea saw the online conferences as a chance for their students to maintain a peer connection amid a pandemic.
“When you go from teaching in the classroom to now having to teach online, we wanted to find fun, innovative ways to get our kids involved,” said Pender, who has hearing loss herself. “We have some kids that have communication delays or they’re not confident in speaking up in front of others, so trying to engage them in conversation is important.”
Working from her home, Pender began communicating on social media with other teachers of deaf and hard of hearing students to exchange ideas for lessons and activities. Finding support in that connection, Pender thought her students might enjoy being a part of a similar group, so she arranged a meeting on Zoom, asking teachers she had met to invite their students.
Dozens of them began showing up from California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Canada, the United Kingdom and Panama. There were guys and girls, middle schoolers and high schoolers. While meetings were optional rather than assigned, as many as 50 a week joined, including about 10 from Pitt County Schools.
D.H. Conley High School sophomore Ayshia Tyson signed on Wednesday for one of the last two chat sessions of the school year. While she misses friends from school, she has welcomed the chance to see a few familiar faces, along with some new ones, online.
Student Ketara Council agreed. She enjoys seeing her teachers online but, “most importantly I really enjoy meeting other deaf kids who are just like me.”
D’cosea said that for some deaf and hard of hearing students, time away from school can be especially difficult.
“Our students feel very alone and isolated,” she said. “Some of them are using American Sign Language and their family doesn’t know American Sign Language, so they don’t even have the communication at home.
“This has become so important because they’re able to communicate with other deaf and hard of hearing individuals who are going through the exact same thing they are and who are struggling with the exact same obstacles that they’re struggling with.”
Pender, who returned to teaching this year after a six-year hiatus, remembers using pen-pal relationships a decade ago to help her students connect with peers. The social media version of that experiment allows for even more interaction, but it comes with some restrictions. Some school districts declined Pender’s invitation because they do not allow their students to use Zoom due to privacy concerns. To help protect students, Pender hosts a meeting of parents and educators prior to the student meeting, and students remain in a “waiting room” until a parent or teacher allows them to join the meeting. Participants are identified by first names only.
While most students participants are deaf or hard of hearing, hearing members of ASL school clubs sometimes have joined. Among deaf or hard of hearing participants, some use sign language while others use spoken English to communicate.
Kirsty, who lives in England, joined the group for her daughter.
“It’s one of the things Hannah looks forward to each week,” she said. “It’s been really nice to see her enthusiasm. She is one of only two deaf students in her high school and although we have lots of deaf peer groups, it’s been really lovely for her to get to know deaf peers from around the world.”
American students like Jillian Gray, a sixth-grader at A.G. Cox Middle School, have been surprised to learn that British Sign Language differs from ASL.
“It allowed me to see what things they do differently from us,” said Jillian, who is hard of hearing. “I loved hearing her and her mother talk; it sounded like ‘Harry Potter.’”
Pender sometimes displays maps at the end of the meetings to show students where participants live.
“They look at these kids and they’re just like them, but they don’t realize that the location of where they are is different,” she said. “It’s almost like they throw in a geography lesson as well. It’s just giving our kids experiences to see where they’ve never been.”
Pender hopes to continue the meetings next school year, expanding their reach to include more states and countries.
“I have several students that are the only ones in their own school that have a hearing loss,” she said. “I think having that connection gives our students an opportunity to see, ‘There are people just like me, and I can connect with them online and using other social media like most of our teenagers are using.’”
Julie, the parent of a deaf high school student in Alabama, hopes to be able to continue to make the group part of her teen’s school day after classes resume. Participating this spring has made her daughter, Adele, who is isolated in her school district, to feel at home in a group.
“I had tried to arrange this before,” Julie said. “Being at home making our own schedule has allowed this to be possible.
“It would take literally a global pandemic for us to be working with people in other countries,” she said. “I think that it’s more than a silver lining. It’s amazing.”