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Planning for School During COVID-19

The school district in St. Augustine, Florida, where Tina Morris lives is providing synchronous teaching for families who choose online. Initially, the plan was for Morris’ son—who is deaf or hard of hearing and wears cochlear implants—to log into each class period every day...

Written By: Lisa A. Goldstein

The school district in St. Augustine, Florida, where Tina Morris lives is providing synchronous teaching for families who choose online. Initially, the plan was for Morris’ son—who is deaf and wears cochlear implants—to log into each class period every day and watch his teacher instruct the group of kids physically in the classroom. The webcam would be pointed at the teacher or board. But “[there is] no guarantee of visual access to the teacher’s face,” the operations manager says, “and the school isn’t sure what they’re going to do about captions. When school shut down last spring, at least the teacher was in front of the computer teaching to kids on a screen. My son had to run another screen for caption support, but he managed. This arrangement is not going to work.”

As school districts figure out their reopening plans, parents of children with hearing loss are worried about what’s in store for their kids. Similarly, teachers of children who are deaf and hard of hearing have to advocate for their students like never before.

Concerns for students who are deaf and hard of hearing

Many schools this fall are following one of three models: bricks and mortar, remote, or a hybrid of both. Each has issues with accessibility. In-person schooling will mean distance hearing because everyone must be at least six feet away from teachers and classmates. Face masks can distort sound significantly in addition to concealing the mouth and facial clues. Clear masks can fog up, defeating the purpose. Wearing a mask with hearing devices can be frustrating, and will frequency modulation (FM) systems even work with masks?

Online schooling means the transmission of sound and/or video might not be great. Will the platform have captions, and if so, how accurate will they be? How should students handle the eye strain and fatigue that often comes with remote learning and will it be magnified for those who have to work harder to listen/lipread on a screen? And if the student who is deaf or hard of hearing has parents working outside the home, how will the student deal with issues that arise?

No matter the model, socialization and mental health issues will likely come into play.

Parent Concerns

Parents of children who are deaf and hard of hearing know all too well the challenges these students will be facing. Sometimes it can mean having to choose the lesser of two evils. Morris made the difficult decision to return to bricks and mortar instead of dealing with the synchronous learning online. “The school was more confident his accommodations would be met if physically at school,” she says.

The private school in Atlanta, where Rebecca Baggett sends her high school junior, is implementing a hybrid remote/in-person learning program where the high school will be split into two different pods. One will attend school in person one week, while the other learns remotely, and then they’ll alternate. “I’m concerned that my…daughter [who wears hearing aids] will have trouble understanding instructions because of the masks, and because she won’t be able to sit close to her teachers for in-person instruction,” says Baggett, director of student programs at the Emory Global Health Institute at Emory University. “I’m also concerned that she will have problems hearing her teachers and classmates via Zoom instructions because half the class will be in the classroom wearing masks along with the teacher. But wearing masks is essential to helping prevent the spread of COVID-19, so I’m not sure what the best solution is.”

And Susan Murdock of Westerly, Rhode Island, has huge concerns. Her son has a moderate hearing loss and is aided, going into his junior year and taking hard courses. “I knew it would be a concern but was shocked when we were out and someone masked asked him a question and he looked at me,” she recalls. “[He] had no idea what they were saying. I do think he needs the socialization but I’m not sure how it’s going to work out. [I] thought about buying teachers the clear masks but he would still have a hard time with classmates’ responses.”

Justine Ventrelli’s son doesn’t like wearing his hearing aids while wearing a mask. “I’m also concerned that there will not be clear masks available for teachers and students to wear,” says the Brooklyn, New York resident who is a banker at a foreign corporate bank. “Unfortunately, I don’t know if my job will allow me to continue staying home for 100 percent remote learning.”

Itinerant Teachers     

Teachers of students who are deaf and hard of hearing are working hard to address these concerns. Jennifer Lootens is one of them. She is an itinerant teacher who is deaf and lives in Portland, Oregon but covers many districts in the state of Washington. Lootens is on a committee that will discuss communication and mental health challenges, mitigation strategies, developing reference material for families, and more for public schools. She anticipates that as the start of the school year draws nearer, she’ll see more decisions being made by school districts and families.

“The challenge with the face covering is going to impact so many in the mainstream setting,” Lootens says. “I think I will be helping many navigate this and finding solutions to support the students who use listening and spoken language.” She reports that many are thinking face shields will be a viable option. Her employer—a regional service provider—will help districts join them in a bulk order.

Tania Samson is also waiting to find out what her school district in Toronto, Ontario, is doing for its educational model, which makes it hard to plan ahead. It doesn’t help that Canada doesn’t have the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). As only one of two itinerant teachers for students who are deaf and hard of hearing on her team of 35, Samson says it has been frustrating. She calls the situation a no-win one for many. She joined a Facebook group specifically for teachers of students who are deaf and hard of hearing during COVID, called “DHH teaching during COVID-19,” where over 4,300 others in the same boat share concerns, resources, solutions, and offer support.

Individualized Education Program (IEP) Accommodations

A thread in the Facebook group addresses Individualized Education Program (IEP) accommodations in order to level the playing field for students who are deaf and hard of hearing. One teacher says to emphasize the typical accommodations like repeating/rephrasing questions and comments, and using visuals to support information. She added, “We should still have high expectations for them even during this time. We just have to ensure they have the access. We need parents to team with us more than ever.”

Lootens says communicating with teachers about what’s working and not working will help clarify concerns and develop strategies that do work well. “A good IEP should have the considerations listed,” she says, “but if something is needed, an amendment to the IEP can be implemented.”

Advance Access and Other Tips

Having as much information as possible ahead of time will help prevent being overwhelmed in the moment. This means allowing students who are deaf and hard of hearing to have access to resources and materials earlier. Teachers can share presentations and transcripts before classes, and students can read about the topic in textbooks, handouts, or slides. Vocabulary words can be tough, so getting those early is helpful.

A good microphone is essential for teachers and classmates, and the student should be connected to the computer via Bluetooth or good headphones. Visual accessibility is vital whether in person or remote. Teachers should have strict turn-taking rules and be conscious of the pace of instruction. As one teacher pointed out in the Facebook group, if a student needs to look between a teacher or materials and an interpreter, or between the teacher and materials, the teacher should be aware that they need to wait until the student looks up to continue speaking.


To address the clear mask fogging issue, one suggestion is to rub some Dawn dish soap or anti-fog spray on the clear panel. This might make the panel blurry, so keep that in mind. It might only work for an hour. If face shields are used, they need to be the right length and width to prevent openings for droplets to get in.

Wearing a mask with hearing devices can be uncomfortable or a pain, when the processors invariably get tangled with the mask. Finding a mask that goes around the head or below the ears is the simplest solution. Or wrap the mask’s elastic around a bun, headband with buttons, or purchase an accessory like a mask extender or s-hook.

Screen Fatigue

While hearing people experience screen fatigue, it’s exacerbated for students who are deaf and hard of hearing—particularly if they also have speech-language therapy online. Screen breaks are essential. Lootens says it depends on how the students are engaging themselves. “I observed that some had no problem shifting to the online learning, [while] others had a harder time,” she says. “The students who were able to figure out what works best for them were getting more out of it. The ones who couldn’t had a harder time. The more successful cases were those that had a high level of collaboration and communication with the teacher.”

This past spring, everyone was trying to figure out what they had to do and learn how to get used to technology. Lootens thinks, this time, she’ll have more people ready for collaboration in the coming months.

In Good Hands

Rest assured that teachers of students who are deaf and hard of hearing are concerned about the accessibility and well-being of their students. “I feel so much for these students with hearing loss!” says Samson. “It’s been so worrying and concerning for me!”

Samson thinks the hearing itinerant teacher, school support staff, teachers, parents, and student need to all work together on a positive transition back to school. “We [should all] monitor the situation day by day or week by week and have open communication,” she adds.

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