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Arizona State Schools For The Deaf And The Blind Working To Reach Students At Home

With Arizona schools now closed for the remainder of the school year, educators and families are looking for ways to keep students learning. But what about students who struggle to communicate with their own parents and peers?

The Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind are working to reach those who count on school for more than academics, like Amelie Morales.

Amelie is a happy albeit stubborn 4-year-old. She likes what she likes, and for the last few weeks, that has included a nightly reading of her favorite bedtime story: “There’s An Alligator Under My Bed.” 

This is more than a bedtime ritual for her. Amelie is deaf. She uses American Sign Language to communicate. And her mom, Laura Morales, is trying to keep up with her in the time of COVID-19. 

“She tells me, like, every morning, ‘Is it time for school?’ — she signs it. ‘Time for school?’" Morales said. "And I’m like, 'No, sorry. You’re staying home.' And she’s like, ‘Why? Why? I want school.’ And it’s hard because I’m still not at that stage where I can explain to her why, you know?”  

Morales knows ASL — not all hearing parents of deaf children do. 

“I grew up bilingual, and so, to me, it was no question whether I should learn American Sign Language or not," she said.

And Amelie has another advantage other students may not: A teacher who’s using social media to reach her students at home. 

Stephanie Voss is a preschool teacher at the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf, one of the schools under the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

"And I teach tiny, deaf humans," she said.

Voss typically teaches two groups of 3- and 4-year-olds for three hours each day — one group in the morning and one in the afternoon. 

When schools were ordered closed on March 16, she set up a professional Instagram account under the handle “ preschoolsigns.” She posts ASL storytime videos and activities students can complete with materials at home. 

“Many of my students don’t have full, accessible language in their homes," she said. "Many of them are going to be going home to homes that are not language-rich for them unfortunately. And there has to be a way that we continue to reach them.” 

View this post on Instagram A favorite! Plus I can relate to the caterpillar eating through all kinds of things! #operationaslstorytime #deafedathome #earlychildhoodeducation #prek A post shared by Stephanie (@preschoolsigns) on Mar 24, 2020 at 5:32pm PDT

That’s the bigger challenge for Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind: meeting students where they are in uncertain times. 

Kelly Creasy is the principal at Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind's Tucson campus. Her school serves about 130 deaf or blind students, about 45 of whom actually live on campus. They went home for spring break before schools were shuttered, and they haven’t been able to come back. 

“We see kids that struggle, you know, when they know a break’s coming up," she said. "You can tell that they’re not looking forward, necessarily, to being away from us for an extended period of time. And so, I think, you know, as long as this goes on and potentially if we don’t come back until next school year, that’s going to be a really long time for some of these kids to go without that direct communication.” 

Children who are blind may face similarly limited opportunities at home.

“We really believe in their independence, and we just kind of let them go on campus," she said of students who are blind on her campus. "They have that freedom to walk about unassisted. And families sometimes struggle with that out in the community, and so, those students might not be going out in the ways that they are used to or have that same sense of independence.” 

For now, Creasy and her staff have to focus on what they can do for students . 

Creasy, like school leaders across the state, will have to figure out how best to achieve distance learning sooner rather than later. State lawmakers passed legislation to allow teachers to reach students in “alternative” formats. But they didn’t get specific about what they would look like exactly — that will be up to district and state officials.  

Meanwhile, Creasy is preparing her staff for the possibility that they might not get back to their classrooms this school year. 

Morales doesn’t want to think about that possibility. 

“It just, it terrifies me," she said, "because I think of all the things she’s missing out on right now. And each day counts.” 

Amelie lights up when she sees her teacher, Voss, on Instagram. She tries to sign to her, telling her about her dog and the activities she’s done. 

View this post on Instagram In The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the caterpillar spends a lot of time eating everything he can find, which feels very familiar for a lot of us on social isolation, distancing, or quarantine. For young children, though, this can be a great time to practice their counting skills and take ownership of their eating. Allowing children to choose how much of something they want, such as chicken nuggets at dinner or crackers at snack time promotes healthy eating and is a great way to practice counting, numbers, and answering questions! What things did you find to count in your kitchen today? #deafedathome #earlychildhoodeducation #preschool #deafkidsrock #quarantinesnacks A post shared by Stephanie (@preschoolsigns) on Mar 24, 2020 at 5:37pm PDT

“They need so much language and so much time, and our time is so short and precious already that the fear that I could’ve already taught them their last day this year — I’m trying really hard not to think about that," she said. "I’m really hoping that we can at least wrap up our time together and, hopefully, send them off on a, on a really good, high, positive note.”

Until then, she’ll keep it light on Instagram with help from friends like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” — hoping to reach tiny deaf humans everywhere. 

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Katie Campbell was a senior producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2019 to 2020.