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Montana School for the Deaf and Blind adapts to masks and social distancing

Posted at 9:05 PM, Aug 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-26 23:05:55-04

All his life, Wesley Dobry has been reading lips. But during the pandemic, with face coverings and masks required in most places, lip-reading has been a hard thing to do.

“With more people, I’m like, ‘Say it again?’” he said. “It’s been a challenge.”

Dobry is an 18-year-old hearing-impaired student at the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind (MSDB), which started school on Monday under much of the same public health precautions as other schools around the state. Mandatory face shields, social distancing, temperature checks, limits on large gatherings, and hand sanitizing are just a few of the measures in place.

But for hearing- and visually-impaired students, those measures can pose significant challenges. Unlike other schools, MSDB has had to make special modifications for its students. Many teachers and students wear clear or partly clear face masks, in order to read lips and see facial expressions.

“It’s been very challenging,” said Carrie Dawes, MSDB teacher of the visually-impaired, “Especially for the visually impaired.”

Visually-impaired students and their instructors normally rely on close proximity to teach and learn, which has now been complicated by social distancing. But school officials say they are working extra hard — regularly cleaning technology, wearing face masks with Braille, among other measures — to keep students safe.

MSDB is the only school of its kind in the state, attracting students and families across the Northwest. It’s a one-of-a-kind learning experience that completely changed when the school transitioned to online learning last year, when the pandemic first gripped the state.

“It was definitely a challenge and a pretty steep learning curve,” said Julie-Dee Alt, MSDB principal.

And school administrators say this next semester is shaping up to be another learning experience. Despite the uncertainty, most students and staff say they’re excited to be back in a place that feels like home.

“I am totally happy to be back because of the interactions with people,” Dobry said.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: MSDB student interview