Two Clarke students perform in an outdoor pageant in celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary in 1917, prior to the influenza pandemic. Clarke School for the Deaf Records (MS 742). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
Lessons from the 1918 Flu Pandemic
Since our founding in 1867, Clarke has prepared children who are deaf or hard of hearing to succeed in mainstream schools and the wider world. But soon after our 50th anniversary, Clarke faced catastrophe.
In 1918, an influenza pandemic began that eventually infected one-third of the global population and led to an astonishing 50 million deaths.
Writing in Clarke’s 1918-1919 annual report, Alexander Graham Bell, then President of the Board, shared: “The year past has been one of grave problems for the school, but problems we feel bravely and wisely faced. The epidemic of influenza occurred at the opening of the year and undoubtedly its influence was felt long after its disappearance.”
In that arduous school year, Clarke matriculated 159 students in its elementary, primary and intermediate grades, with 14 graduates venturing off to new chapters—some bound for high school and others taking teaching jobs in California, Indiana, Georgia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Canada. One graduate was even headed to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, the present-day College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
Excerpt from Alexander Graham Bell, President of the Board, writing in Clarke’s 1918-1919 Annual Report. [Image source: Clarke School for the Deaf Records (MS 742). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.]
The Impact of Philanthropy
Alexander also shared that there were significant financial losses during this time, which forced the organization to consider increasing fundraising efforts. So, to support the important work of the school, the Board voted to double the endowment.
“The school,” Alexander wrote, “…cannot fail to engage the continued interest and support of those who stand ready to help forward educational and philanthropic work.”
By viewing philanthropy as a priority, Clarke leadership supported the needs of 159 children who were deaf or hard of hearing, providing them with the education and tools they needed to thrive in a hearing world.
The Clarke Community is Tested Again
One hundred years later, Clarke faces another crisis. The COVID-19 global pandemic has caused suffering and death, mass unemployment and an economic downturn—upending lives and taking a drastic toll on vulnerable communities.
In the United Nations’ COVID-19 response, Secretary-General António Guterres implored the public, “This is the moment to step up for the vulnerable. Older persons, persons with chronic illness and persons with disabilities face particular, disproportionate risks, and require an all-out effort to save their lives and protect their future.”
Today and everyday, Clarke is stepping up for the futures of the vulnerable. Our team’s response to the crisis has been inspiring. In the spring of 2020, Clarke’s services rapidly evolved from in-home, at-school and center-based learning, to meet the critical needs of our vulnerable community from afar. Clarke teachers of the deaf, speech-language pathologists, audiologists and early intervention specialists have gone above and beyond to ensure that all Clarke children and families are set up for success.
Mary Carlson, MA, CCC-SLP, Clarke speech-language pathologist, meets virtually with her student Chance in March 2020.
We rallied as a community by delivering close to 100% virtual services during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic—including classrooms, speech sessions and family coaching—to more than 250 infants and toddlers, more than 250 preschoolers and close to 500 mainstream students along the East Coast. Additionally, with virtual dance parties, spirit weeks, student appreciation parades and drive-through graduations, a difficult semester was replete with heart-warming moments of connection, despite our distance.
With careful and extensive summer planning, each Clarke site then developed comprehensive re-opening plans for the fall of 2020, with combinations of remote services, phased in-person instruction, facility modifications and tiered hybrid models. All five Clarke sites implemented enhanced sanitation and disinfecting procedures, the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), student, family, patient and employee screening questionnaires, temperature checks and other measures in compliance with and based on guidance from the CDC, the states in which we operate and other local and regulatory agencies.
“We know that Zainab [second grader in the K-8 Program] is at the right place where she is getting all the help she needs,” said her mother, Hina, at the start of the fall 2020 school year. “We are so grateful to Clarke… She has made a lot of progress since she started attending Clarke. And I am sure she will continue to make great strides this year.”
These efforts have made an impact beyond Clarke families as well. Parents and school districts alike have consistently shared that Clarke’s responsiveness and level of remote instruction have been outstanding. As one special education professional commented, “I work with a lot of schools and out-of-district programs. Clarke’s remote services are head and shoulders above any of the other public or private programs I’ve seen.”
Navigating this swift transformation has been exceptionally challenging, but with the support of donors, local sponsors and foundations, the Clarke team continues to make it happen daily.
Lynn Stoner, Clarke teacher of the deaf, teaches kindergarten and first grade students safely in person at Clarke Florida in October 2020.
Closing his letter in the 1918-1919 annual report, Alexander Graham Bell wrote, “[Clarke] desires to urge upon friends of the school active interest and co-operation in this work.”
Now more than ever, Clarke relies on the support and generosity of many dedicated friends who believe in Clarke’s mission. With this support, we can continue to provide every Clarke infant, child and school-age student with the tools and support they’ll need to sustain their listening and spoken language success through this historic event. To learn more about how you can support Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, go to clarkeschools.org/donate.
You can also make a difference each month, automatically. To learn more, visit clarkeschools.org/monthlygiving.