How this teacher who reads lips has navigated mask mandates

Amy Nicholas communicated with her students by reading their lips. But when the pandemic hit and mask mandates were introduced, everything changed.

Masks made return to classroom impossible for Amy Nicholas, who is hard of hearing

Ms. Nicholas’s class is filled with art and fun activities, students say

5 months ago
Duration 1:26
Grade 3 students share what they enjoy about Ms. Nicholas’s virtual class and describe what it was like to find out that she uses a hearing aid.

Amy Nicholas knew she wanted to teach ever since she was a little girl, so she couldn't wait to start her career when she graduated from the University of Ottawa in 2019.

But just six months into her first teaching job with the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB), the pandemic hit.

And though it changed life for just about everybody, it's been particularly challenging for Nicholas, who is hard of hearing and reads lips to communicate.

She hasn't been able to return to a physical classroom because masks prevent her from communicating with her students.

Nicholas learned some British Sign Language while growing up, but her mother, Colleen Lawn-Nicholas, emphasized lip reading. (Submitted by Amy Nicholas)

Nicholas was born with a rare platelet disorder that causes sensorineural hearing loss. The condition affects the inner ear and runs in her family, impacting two of her three brothers.

An audiologist estimated she and her siblings have 90 per cent hearing loss in both ears.

"I don't have any recollection of having [full] hearing," she said.

Growing up in England, Nicholas and her brothers learned some British Sign Language. But her late mother Colleen Lawn-Nicholas, who dealt with a related form of hearing loss, emphasized speech development and lip reading as primary means of communication.

Amy Nicholas's mother was there to celebrate her graduation from teachers' college at the University of Ottawa. (Submitted by Amy Nicholas)

"That was really important to her, because she knew exactly what it was like [to grow up hard of hearing]," Nicholas said.

"We would use some basic sign language, but really we would read lips." 

That all had to change as COVID-19 circled the globe.

When mandatory mask-wearing was introduced, Nicholas could no longer read lips, limiting her ability to communicate with students in person. She's been teaching online ever since.

In the early days of the pandemic, Nicholas pondered whether to ask local school boards about clear masks to get her back into a physical classroom, but she soon realized it wasn't realistic.

Not only are clear masks more difficult to wear and fog over time, she found they were difficult to acquire, even for her own family and friends.

The Grade 3 class at Blessed Carlo Virtual School holds up artwork as Nicholas, bottom right, looks on. (Submitted by Amy Nicholas)

Making virtual connections 

So instead of returning to the classroom, Nicholas has been working as an occasional teacher at OCSB's Blessed Carlo Virtual School, where she's found her stride primarily teaching Grade 3 students.

Though she misses being in a physical classroom, Nicholas said she's enjoyed getting creative with art projects and body breaks, and looking for ways to incorporate more technology into her lessons.

In some ways, the tech she's employed has enabled her to connect better with students online than in person.

She uses a device called a ComPilot that connects her hearing aid to her laptop via Bluetooth so she can hear her students more clearly.

Nicholas's ComPilot, right, connects her hearing aid, left, to her laptop so she can hear students in her virtual class more clearly. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

For students and their parents, that's translated to a strong connection.

"I think what I like the most is her caring, that comes across virtually," said parent Rehanna Ramdath.

"She's very comfortable with the kids … and she's always available to them."

Amy Nicholas reads lips to communicate. With mask mandates in place for the past two years, lip-reading wasn’t possible. She reflects on teaching from home while most of her colleagues are back in the classroom and what a maskless future could look like for her.

Still, Nicholas admitted it isn't the same as building face-to-face relationships with her students and she's heard from some parents that their kids have struggled with the barriers of virtual learning. 

"I think it was hard for the kids all year because kids love to hug. Especially my kids … they want to be part of the community," said Linda Scaffidi Argentina, a mother of twins who were in Nicholas's class last year.

"But I think [Nicholas] always made them feel [a part of things]," she said. At the end of the year "they actually were saying, 'I hope we have her again next year!'"

Nicholas poses for a photo with her Grade 3 students Dante and Valentina Scaffidi Argentina. (Submitted by Linda Scaffidi Argentina)

Masks difficult outside school as well

The mask mandate poses challenges for Nicholas outside of the classroom, in particular after her late mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in late 2020.

While Lawn-Nicholas was in hospital, restrictions were tight. She was only allowed one visitor at a time and they would both have to keep their masks on, making communication nearly impossible.

"I definitely found it very frustrating because it was like nothing was taken into account," Nicholas recalled.

Lawn-Nicholas died in February 2021.

Nicholas wishes she had been better able to communicate and connect with her mother before she died. (Submitted by Amy Nicholas)

Uncertainty ahead as mask mandates lift

Ontario's mandatory mask-wearing policy in schools is lifting on March 21 but Nicholas said she still doesn't know what lies ahead.

She'd love to go back to teaching in person but knows some students may prefer to keep their masks on in class, making it unclear when a physical return might be possible for her.

Though in some ways she's felt robbed of the teaching experience she pictured when she graduated, she said virtual learning has brought unexpected benefits and allowed her to pursue her career in a difficult time.

"I think if there hadn't been virtual [learning], then I would have been forced to try to do some other job in the meantime, and wait for things to change," she said.

"In some ways, it turned out to be another way I could use my skills as a teacher and do my job."

While the pandemic created big challenges for Nicholas, virtual schooling had some unexpected benefits. (Francis Ferland/CBC)


Anchal Sharma is an associate producer for CBC in Ottawa. Find her on Twitter at @anchalsharma_.