Special masks and social distancing: What the Tennessee Schools for the Deaf look like now

Tennessee Schools for the Deaf students returned to Knoxville Sunday.

TSD faces some of the same challenges K-12 schools face with distancing and masks, while they also face challenges similar to universities with student housing.

Superintendent Vicki Kirk said the school is up to the challenge. 

TSD has three schools across the state – in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson.There are about 186 students total with 126 students in Knoxville. There are 42 virtual students across the three campuses, Kirk told Knox News.

Kirk said the school needed a very safe reopening plan because for deaf and hard of hearing students, communication is extremely important for social and emotional development.

“Most deaf children are born into hearing families, and so even the most well-meaning, well-intentioned parents don’t have the communication skills when the child is born to be able to communicate with them immediately because it’s a visual language,” Kirk said. “So often times, children don’t have a place where they can really express themselves and be understood. This campus helps them with that.” 

During the week, there is a 24-hour health clinic. Students are expected to wear a mask, social distance, wash hands frequently and stay home if they are sick. Students cannot stay on campus during the weekend. Their buses will have assigned seating, windows will be open when weather allows and students will not be allowed to share snacks. Students must pass temperature checks and will not be allowed to use school transportation if they have a fever.

Like other schools, the district has students with other disabilities that can make them more at risk of getting seriously sick with COVID-19, Kirk said.

Since American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual language, the school is also offering masks with clear screens that enable lip reading.

Teachers and students must wear masks, but they can choose between a cloth mask or a mask with the screen. 

“If a teacher is teaching speech, for example, she’ll have to wear a clear mask while she’s teaching the speech because they are doing the sounds and showing the child how to make their mouth move and how to place their tongue and all kinds of things like that,” Kirk said.

“We’re fully aware that it’s (comfort with clear masks) a barrier for us, but we’re not real worried about it. We’re finding ways to get around it.”

Here are some of the precautions outlined in the school’s 41-page reopening document. 

  • Knoxville’s clinic director and registered nurse will be the three campuses’ COVID-19 coordinator. Naomi Anderson will work with local health departments and the state department of health
  • Cloth masks are required for students at most times, but are not required when students are in their bedrooms. There are exceptions for some students.
  • Staff and students must clean work areas, but cleaning staff will clean buildings. Kirk said gloves will be available for staff, and teachers are also allowed to wear scrubs if that makes them feel comfortable. 
  • Students will be in small groups when possible.
  • Visitors will be limited.

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