COVID-19 and the Deaf & Hard of Hearing Community

November 30, 2020By: Jamie Bozarth, Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

The excitement of autumn is all around us as the leaves begin to change. The cooler weather brings about the anticipation of going back to school, family gatherings, and another year of holidays.  For many of us, these changes are a bit out of the ordinary.  Back to school did not look like past years. Holidays and family gatherings will look different. We all seem to be celebrating Halloween daily. 

A Season for Masks

We usually associate masks with Halloween and candy.  Instead, we are wearing masks daily and going about our lives as we learn, work, and socialize in the community.  This has been a difficult adjustment for all. Still, for a particular group of people, masks make everyday communication incredibly challenging.   People with a hearing loss of any degree rely on facial cues, lip-reading, and adequate sound accessibility when listening to someone speak.  Masks create a barrier to important communication. Those who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing may find it challenging to understand spoken messages when communicating with people who are wearing masks.

Helping Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students through COVID-19

Students who are DHH have transitioned back to school to continue their learning. However, their primary mode of understanding is now blocked. Masks are covering the teacher’s lips or muffling voices and are interfering with seeing facial expressions.  In addition, much debate is occurring as to which type of mask is best for DHH students to help with facilitating communication. For example, clear masks often fog up and muffle sound, while cloth masks take away lip reading and facial expression cues but tend to transmit sound better.  Face shields haven’t proven to completely stop or protect against the spread of the virus.

Options to Support Learning

How do we help our DHH kids through all of this?  Each student hears, learns, and understands differently. We need to treat every student individually and make decisions regarding masks, hearing, learning, and understanding according to their unique needs.  More than ever, self-advocacy is imperative to the learning abilities of all DHH students.  The student should be given the opportunity to guide the school staff on what will help them learn better.  Some students may need a Functional Modulation (FM) system, cloth mask, and visual support before the lesson.  Another may choose a clear mask and an FM system only.  Yet another may say, “I’d prefer distance learning so I can see my teacher on the screen without a mask and use closed captioning (CC) to help me understand better.” 

Making Learning Accessible for DHH Students during COVID-19

Determining what works best for each child may take some time and creativity.  Other teaching methods and supports may include functional listening evaluations, time in a sound booth experimenting with different masks, small group instruction, and one-on-one teaching sessions to help teach new concepts. New ways of providing accessible online learning materials may be considered and experimented with to figure out what works best for each student.  In this time of uncertainty and high stress, there is no right or wrong answer.  Masks have changed the way we educate our DHH students, and we are all in this together as we figure out what works best for each student.  Encourage students, families, and staff to think outside the box when it comes to educating DHH students during this special time. 

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