Masks made it harder for the Deaf community to communicate

Here’s how one school adjusts

In classrooms of the Indiana School for the Deaf in Indianapolis, students sit in a semi-circle to easily watch each other communicate in American Sign Language. Some wear clear masks, while others wear cloth ones.

A teacher stands in front of the class wearing a clear face shield or a clear mask. Clear face coverings are required for all teachers to effectively communicate to students through ASL, a language reliant on facial expressions and mouth movements to convey meaning.

Adjustments to pandemic learning proved challenging for all students. However, it looked slightly different for students and staff at ISD.

Andy Alka, ISD principal for middle and high school, said the school has been conducting in-person learning since fall 2020 after teaching and learning remotely for the spring 2020 semester.

The school initially began the fall 2021 semester without a mask mandate but began requiring masks a few weeks into the semester because the number of cases in the Indianapolis area increased.

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Indiana School for the Deaf principal Andy Alka talks about the challenges the school has faced during the pandemic Oct. 6, 2021, at ISD in Indianapolis. Alka is hearing and speaks fluent American Sign Language. “Students often forget that I’m hearing,” he said. “It means I’ve learned enough. I fit in.”

In the lunchrooms, plexiglass dividers separate students while they eat. Alka said students are allowed to take their masks off during the lunch period to eat. Students can finally see each other's mouths move while they sign.

“You can see the relief in students when they get to take their masks off,” Alka said.


Alka said ISD reimplemented the mandate to reduce the number of students who would have to quarantine when a student tests positive. He said absences have a substantial effect on learning, and it is noticeable when multiple students are absent from classes that are already very small to begin with.

A total of 342 students from preschool to 12th grade attend ISD. Alka said all students and 90-95% of faculty and staff are Deaf or hard of hearing. ISD offers dorm-style living on campus for students from around the state who live far, but the students who live in Indianapolis and surrounding suburbs commute from their homes.

Alka, who is fluent in ASL but is hearing, is serving in his 13th year as principal of ISD. He said there is no difference between his students and students at other schools: only hearing.

“They play the same sports, like the same things, have the same thoughts,” he said. “They just can’t hear.”

Alka said he feels honored to be a part of the ISD community.

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A mural at the Indiana School the Deaf is pictured Oct. 9, 2021, in Indianapolis. ISD students created all the murals at the school

“I feel very included here,” Alka said. “Students often forget that I’m hearing. It means I’ve learned enough, I fit in.”

When ISD closed at the start of the pandemic, Alka said the school made drastic changes to its programs.


“Friday, March 13, 2020,” Alka said, thinking about the day the school closed. “I remember that day clearly. We knew what was coming.”

He told students they’d have the following Monday off and to check their emails for further instruction. The following Tuesday, the school had to begin virtual learning.

The ISD campus closed for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. When the school closed, the 77 students who lived in dorms were forced to go home. ISD is a public school, so all decisions are made by the Indiana Department of Education. As a result, ISD could not allow students to stay on campus.

“That was a big eye opener for us,” Alka said. “For who has what, and who doesn’t.”

Alka said 40-50% of ISD’s students are economically disadvantaged. Some of them don’t have access to computers or stable internet connection at home. ISD staff, however, drove to student’s homes across the state to provide iPads to students who could not afford them.

Through visiting multiple students across the state, staff members were able to see where students lived and gained perspective on how they could best help students learn in their individual circumstances.

The hardest part was getting students on a schedule and encouraging them to stay engaged, Alka said.

Meet students and faculty at ISD

ISD high school principal and students discuss challenges they've faced during COVID-19 as deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

“We’d use handouts and notes for students to reference during class,” Alka said. “On Zoom, we’d email or text students to get their attention.”

Alka said it’s hard to keep Deaf students engaged on Zoom because they have to make eye contact with each other to communicate, which can be difficult when each student is in a different spot on the Zoom screen. However, online learning was the only option.

Nicholle Bradach is a 17-year-old senior at ISD. She has attended school there since she was in preschool. Bradach is fully Deaf. She and her family, who are also all Deaf, sign at home.


“I stay inside of the Deaf community,” Bradach said.

When not on ISD’s campus and surrounded by people who can hear, she said it’s hard to go out in public and see people with masks on. As someone who is fully Deaf, she can’t figure out who is trying to communicate with her.

“When people wear their masks, I don’t know if they're talking to me or looking at me,” Bradach said. “With masks, you can’t see the emotion that’s being said.”

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Indiana School for the Deaf student Nicholle Bradach talks about the struggles she has faced as a deaf individual during the COVID-19 pandemic Oct. 9, 2021, at ISD in Indianapolis. Bradach has been attending ISD since she was in preschool.

Bradach will graduate high school next year and said she wants to attend a Deaf university. It provides comfort to have a community where everyone communicates in the same way, she said.

“One benefit is not having to communicate through an interpreter,” Bradach said.

In the United States, there are approximately 4300 postsecondary degree granting institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of those institutions, three of them are universities for Deaf students.

“Many of our students go to Deaf colleges,” Alka said. “Because they want to feel wanted.”


Alka and Bradach’s interviews were interpreted by ISD’s in-house interpreter Kendall Gonzalez.