The Utah High School American Sign Language State Competition was just one day away when state officials announced that large gatherings were canceled and schools would move to distance learning.
With approximately 400 students planning to attend the competition from 20 different high schools across Utah, spirits quickly dropped. In the midst of the upheaval, ASL teachers questioned what they could do for their students.
It didn’t take long before the idea was proposed by the volunteer organizing committee of Lacey Long (Alta High School), Lori Poll (West High School), Annik Carlisle (Skyline High School), and Jody Lynn Tolley (Skyline High School) to create an online competition. It would require basically starting over from scratch and using out-of-the-box principles that had never been tried before.
The first real hurdle was organizing enough people to assist with the competition. This was a tall order considering the overwhelming nature of the shift to distance learning. Thankfully, when word got out that volunteers were needed, members of the Deaf community stepped up to ensure the event could take place. Volunteers from all parts of the country and beyond lent their help, including professors from Gallaudet University (the only liberal arts university for the Deaf in the world) out of Washington, D.C., famous Deaf actors out of Los Angeles, Deaf community members and friends from Texas, former ASL students, and folks from Toronto, Canada.
The next big task was to figure out how to turn events that were typically done face-to-face into online events. The most difficult event to manage was debate, which was done with the use of Zoom and extra personnel to keep track of time and topics.
The last thing to plan was the award ceremony. Inspired by Tim Mundt (assistant principal of Skyline High School), the goal quickly changed from having an award ceremony to having a unique experience that would normally not be possible. Marlee Matlin (the first deaf actor to receive an Academy Award) welcomed everyone in attendance. A school ‘roll call’ was given, and Matlin congratulated everyone for not allowing COVID-19 to stop them.
“We will never be able to stop bad things from happening to our students and a pandemic is about as bad as it gets. As teachers, we had to decide the lesson we wanted to teach our students. If there was a lesson, it was this: the one thing that we can control is how we react when things go wrong. Years from now, I hope these students will be able to look back and see our examples; that teachers were willing to step up and fight for them. When students have the choice to give up or dig deep, I hope they find their own inner strength.”
Davis High student Katelynn Larsson summed up the student perspective: “It was so disappointing when everything got canceled. Having this work out, still happen, means a lot to me. Thank you for working it out and allowing me to have something to have looked forward to, and to have experienced and accomplished.