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Face masks in school: Tips for navigating a new classroom

face masks in school
Our traditional classrooms were shifted to online platforms in early March.

Since then life has changed in many ways. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended wearing face masks in public, I’ve learned just how much I actually relied on lip-reading and seeing people’s faces to communicate effectively. However, there’s one aspect I didn’t quite think about: school and the classroom setting. It didn’t cross my mind that when school starts up again, many of us will be back on campus but face masks in school will pose increased challenges for the deaf and hard of hearing community. 

As someone who has had hearing loss my entire life, I’ve learned how to adapt to many situations and environments. Luckily, technology has helped that tremendously. Being able to adjust my Phonak hearing aid settings to fit my environment, using a Smartpen for lectures to pick up what my hearing aids might miss, having an FM system (you may have a remote microphone) that transmits sound and speech directly to my hearing aid, and captioning on videos. These tools have helped me to thrive especially in the educational/school setting.

Educational settings can pose unique challenges to those with hearing loss. I’ve experienced and have well adapted to both in-person and online instruction by utilizing the tools and technology overcome challenges. However, when learning we would be returning to campus with a student and teacher population all wearing face masks, I started thinking about how this would look in the classroom and the challenges that may arise.

Challenges in educational settings with hearing loss (without masks):

Everyone with hearing loss has their own unique challenges. No two individuals are exactly alike in terms of their experiences or the challenges they face in the educational environment. However, there are similar challenges experienced in this population.

Some of the main challenges are:

  • Following along when the teacher is lecturing while trying to take notes simultaneously
  • Videos without captions 
  • Background noise
  • Not being able to fully see the teacher/instructors face

Read more: Hearing loss in the classroom: Your rights as a student

These are only some of the challenges that are presented to students with hearing loss in the classroom setting. As mentioned, some may have very different challenges. However, what happens when masks and social distancing are added to this particular setting?

Challenges face masks in school and social distancing bring to the classroom

Take into account the last challenge I mentioned above about not being able to see the instructor’s face or lip-read. We know now after months of living with masks that even those without hearing loss rely on facial cues and lip-reading for communication. How is the classroom different?

Well, I had the same thought at first. I thought I could simply take the tips mentioned in my last article that I’ve been using the past few months and apply them to the classroom. However, the technology that I use in the classroom is now also affected by the use of masks.

In that article, I discussed how the masks muffle speech and so many sounds can become unclear. So I did a test. I pulled out my personal FM system that my instructors sometimes wear that transmits sound directly to my hearing aids. I thought maybe this could actually be a solution, not just in the classroom but in other settings too to help hear beyond the mask.

However, that wasn’t exactly the case. What I found was that because the mask muffles speech, muffled speech is only going into the microphone. The microphone amplifies the muffled speech and transmits it to my hearing aids. This leaves me to still mishear and misunderstand many sounds.

The same is true with a Smartpen. A Smartpen has been a lifesaver for me. When I’m taking notes and I need to go back and review something later, I can simply click the note and it plays a recording of exactly what the professor was saying at the time I took the note. However, I realized that that too not only comes out muffled but if a speaker is soft-spoken on top of that plus more than six feet away, you can barely hear it. So it turns out the two main tools I use may not be as helpful as usual when there are face masks in school and social distancing in the classroom.

How to navigate the new classroom as a deaf or hard of hearing student

I’ve started to think of ways as to how I can adapt and adjust to face masks in school to make this challenge a bit easier so that I’m not missing out on important lectures.

My campus has considered the idea of bringing in masks with clear shields so that we could see each other’s faces which would help with lip-reading. I feel these masks are an amazing solution for everyone, not only the deaf and hard of hearing community. However, in a classroom setting, the teacher often walks around the class and usually is not directly in front of you.

Read more: What to know about clear medical masks for lipreading

If you are a student who may be faced with these similar challenges, talk with your teachers/professors, your disability or student services coordinator, or faculty that can help you work through these barriers. Don’t be afraid to plan ahead so that when the time comes, you, your teachers and peers are prepared. Some things that could be potentially helpful to discuss are the following:

1) Request a notetaker or transcription for lectures

2) Request a live captioner or someone willing to transcribe lectures in real-time so you don’t have to rely on understanding the sound

3) Make your teacher(s) aware that you have a hearing loss

4) If there’s something you’ve found particularly helpful in overcoming this challenge, let them know

These times of vast and uncertain changes and less-than-ideal circumstances can definitely pose a unique set of challenges for all but especially for the deaf and hard of hearing population. However, there are ways to work with it. Through making the community aware of these challenges and what we need, we can successfully adapt to this “new normal.”

Danielle Guth
Author Details
Hi, my name is Danielle! I’m an undergraduate psychology student at Penn State University with an immense passion for writing and helping and inspiring others in any way I can. I am an anti-bullying and mental health advocate, blogger, and public speaker through my personal blog and social media campaign, “Compassionately Inspired”. I was born with a severe conductive hearing loss and hope to inspire others both in the hard of hearing and deaf community as well as the hearing community. “Everybody has a story”; that’s my motto and I hope my stories inspire you in one way or another.
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Danielle Guth
Hi, my name is Danielle! I’m an undergraduate psychology student at Penn State University with an immense passion for writing and helping and inspiring others in any way I can. I am an anti-bullying and mental health advocate, blogger, and public speaker through my personal blog and social media campaign, “Compassionately Inspired”. I was born with a severe conductive hearing loss and hope to inspire others both in the hard of hearing and deaf community as well as the hearing community. “Everybody has a story”; that’s my motto and I hope my stories inspire you in one way or another.