During the 2020–2021 school year, teachers and administrators can take steps to meet the unique challenges that virtual and modified in-person learning environments will pose for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Both formats have challenges, but schools and teachers can help children be successful.
Solid masks and other face coverings can dampen sound, making it more difficult to understand speech and some higher-pitched voices. They can also take away visual cues that help people with hearing loss communicate, such as the ability to read lips and facial expressions. Physical distancing can also make it harder to hear. Consequently, ASHA recommends the following to teachers and school staff members for in-person instruction:
- Wear a clear mask, if possible. Masks with a clear panel over the mouth can help students who are deaf or hard of hearing better understand what is being said as well as the speaker’s emotions and intent by providing visual cues. A variety of online retailers offer these products.
- Follow communication best practices. Simple steps can foster communication. They include making sure you have students’ attention before speaking; facing students directly while talking; speaking slowly and slightly louder (but not shouting); using your hands and body language; and providing extra written and visual resources to back up verbal instruction.
- Consider a sound field FM system. A sound field FM system involves a teacher wearing a microphone, amplifying their voice through a speaker. This will benefit not only children with hearing loss but all students in the classroom. Also, it will help the teacher conserve their voice.
- Consult with an educational audiologist. Educational audiologists are experts in classroom acoustics. As teachers look to safely arrange their classrooms to protect against the virus, an educational audiologist can advise teachers on how to preserve an environment that enables effective communication.
When the teacher uses an online video platform, their voice may not always be clearly received—and inadequate lighting in the teacher’s room may make visual cues difficult to read. To avoid such barriers, ASHA recommends the following strategies to teachers providing virtual instruction:
- Use available technology and services. Real-time captioning, interpreter services, and hearing assistive technologies can help students with hearing loss have better access to the curriculum. Each student has unique needs, so it is important to determine which approach works best for each individual. An educational audiologist can assist with determining and implementing appropriate technology and services.
- Encourage video use. Ask all children to turn on their webcams. Most teachers will already be using video, but if children are taking turns answering questions or are placed in small breakout groups, seeing their peers’ faces will help communication.
- Consider lighting. When setting up a webcam, it is best to have lighting in front of you rather than behind you. If the lighting in a room (electronic or natural) comes from behind, a teacher’s facial features will be more difficult to see. Some teachers are using ring lights, an inexpensive circular lighting tool that evenly illuminates the face, to reduce shadows. Before classes start, find ways to optimize facial lighting.
- Use meeting platform tools to eliminate excess noise. Ask children to mute themselves (or mute them from your end) when they aren’t speaking, and use the “raise hand” function or other similar functions to encourage taking turns. Background noise from each student’s house, along with multiple children speaking at once, can make listening very difficult.
- Allow students time for brief introductory chatter. Begin each class with a few minutes of general conversation. This will give children with hearing loss time to make sure that they can hear everyone appropriately and make any necessary adjustments to their equipment.
Hybrid Learning Model
Some children may be part of a hybrid school model involving both in-person and virtual learning, or they may be starting the year exclusively in one format and then changing part-way through the school year. ASHA recommends that teachers and schools do the following:
- Be consistent. If you are switching between in-person and online classes, make sure that a student has the equipment or service they need to access the curriculum in both settings. If the student has an interpreter in person, then the interpreter should also be accessible to help with online instruction as well. Teachers and administrators can consult an educational audiologist or teacher of the deaf.
- Check in regularly. If the school is changing from in-person to virtual instruction (or vice versa), be sure to check in with the student to determine whether the new way of learning is working for them.
- Revisit 504 plans and IEPs as needed. Consider whether the changes to instructional format require modifications to a student’s 504 plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP).