Technology Bridges the Gap for Deaf and Blind Students Distance Learning

Seth Snow sitting at table doing school work on a laptop.

Technology advances help Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind students succeed during period of distance learning.

Children across the country have had to make a major adjustment when schools moved to distance learning in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

But for students of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, online learning presents a unique challenge. Luckily, the technology available today has made the transition as smooth as possible.

“We couldn’t have done this 10 or 15 years ago,” said FSDB president Jeanne Glidden Prickett. “Having video and audio available and so readily usable for blind students and deaf students has been a major breakthrough for distance learning.”

Prickett said the increasing affordability and accessibility of Braille materials, including an electronic attachment for computers called a refreshable Braille display, as well as video conferencing in American Sign Language have bridged the gap between hearing or visually impaired children and those in a traditional school.

“The platforms like Zoom, Facetime, Microsoft Teams, these things have leveled the playing field,” Prickett said. “We have the technology, now our challenge is to make sure that every child has access to the technology.”

FSDB is a tuition-free state public school for students in pre-K through high school who are deaf/hard of hearing, blind/visually impaired, or deafblind. The school had an enrollment of 525 in 2019, and about three quarters of the students live on campus Monday through Friday.

Along with traditional school districts, FSDB had to take an extra week of spring break in March in order to prepare for distance learning. While the school has prepared for hurricanes in the past, this was something entirely different.

Administrator of Instructional Services Tracie Snow said because the school’s population has such specific needs, she had to adapt guidance from other districts and from the Florida Department of Education to suit FSDB. She also has a son in the deaf high school, so she understands what families are going through.

“Because we have 100 percent ESE students here, that really became our main focus and when you go a little deeper, we have students who are deaf and hard of hearing and we have students who are blind and visually impaired, so what does that look like for them?” Snow said.

Once the plan was in place, the next step was getting the materials out to families across the state. FSDB already had devices on hand for students, so they just needed to mail them out.

The school also sends packets and lesson plans every week to give parents a heads up on what their child will be working on in the following days. When it comes to the lessons themselves, it varies between grade level and skill set.

Jamie and Jason Hoffnagle have two sons who attend the school, both of whom are deaf. Jamie Hoffnagle says her kindergartener Noah isn’t mailed just worksheets but all the materials he would normally have access to in his classroom.

“He gets Play-Doh or paint, he gets all the papers and little cutout things that his teacher would have, he receives them in the mail the week before,” Jamie Hoffnagle said. “His teacher also uploaded videos, all captioned for the parents. So it’s amazing the work they’re doing.”

Twelve-year-old Joshua didn’t have many issues working online, as he already uses Facetime to communicate with his friends every day. Fortunately the entire family of eight knows sign language, so there isn’t a communication barrier.

That’s especially important now that parents are having to step in and make sure that their children are participating in their online classes. It becomes even more complicated when that parent isn’t fluent in ASL or doesn’t know how to help their child whose vision or hearing impaired.

“If a blind child isn’t sure where on the Braille document they should start a line, there’s somebody physically next to them who is hand-over-hand showing them that line,” Snow said. “For a child who is deaf, having somebody in the home who can spell an English word for them or read part of an English text for them is important. It really has to be all about teamwork.”