Deaf, hard-of-hearing community nervous about returning to school as students mask up

With so many masks in the classroom this fall, parents of children with hearing issues have been left to wonder how difficult it will be for them to understand their teachers and peers. Ontario's back-to-school plan will see masks required for students between grades four through 12.

'When someone's wearing a mask, it's harder to understand them,' says 13-year-old student

Vani Ashekian, right, was born deaf in both ears and says understanding someone who is wearing a mask can be difficult. Her mother Houry, left, is concerned about what that will mean for her daughter when the 13-year-old returns to school in September. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

With so many masks in the classroom this fall, parents of children with hearing issues have been left to wonder how difficult it will be for them to understand their teachers and peers.

Ontario's back-to-school plan will see masks required for students between grades four through 12. For students in Grade 3 and below, wearing non-medical and cloth masks will be encouraged, but not mandatory.

People who are deaf or hard of hearing tend to rely on lip reading and facial cues to understand what someone is saying. That's creating concerns for students who worry they'll have a hard time receiving their friends' comments or teacher's instructions come September.

Student Vani Ashekian who's entering Grade 8 at St. William Catholic Elementary School is one of many who worries how she'll communicate with others. Whenever she's in a crowded area where other people are loudly talking, the 13-year-old said she finds herself having to move somewhere else and repeatedly say "Pardon?" or "Can you say that one more time?" if she's in the middle of a conversation.

"For some people [who are hard of hearing], they don't have cochlear implants or hearing aids so people can use sign language,"  said Ashekian, who admits she only knows a "little bit" of sign language.

"When someone's wearing a mask, it's harder to understand them."

Cochlear implants bypass the ear by gathering sounds through small microphones and sending them as electrical impulses through an implant connected to the auditory nerve. In other words, they simulate normal hearing. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Ashekian and her mother say they try to be as safe as possible by wearing masks whenever they're out in public. But anxiety starts to kick in whenever the 13-year-old's mother has to remove her mask so her daughter can better understand what she's saying.

"Sometimes, I worry that people are looking at me — if they're going to be upset about me not wearing a mask," said Ashekian's mother, Houry.

"I don't want to upset anybody and I want to make sure everybody is safe. I just don't want to make her and others uncomfortable whenever I have to bring my mask down to speak to her."

When asked what options are available for people to better accommodate those who are hard-of-hearing, the mother-daughter duo struggled to come up with an answer. That's something a group called VOICE for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children is trying to figure out.

"There's a few things that we're testing and putting forward," said the group's chair, Mary Kay McCoy. "Speech is degraded no matter what type of mask you wear."

Surgical masks are considered the "best for hearing," according to McCoy, since they don't degrade voice quality too much. Cloth masks are the next best thing — but since most people in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community rely on reading lips, the group is considering masks with a clear centre.

Mary Kay McCoy, chair of VOICE for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children, says all masks will degrade speech quality to some degree — but some are better than others at retaining voice quality. (Peter Duck/CBC)

If you're wondering why teachers can't just wear similarly-clear face shields, McKoy said those come with their own share of problems.

"When our kids are in school, the teacher wears what's called an FM. That's a mic that they clip on to their collar which allows language to go directly into our child's hearing aids or cochlear implant, so that they can hear the teacher directly and the background noise doesn't affect the speech as much," she said.

"But with some of these plastic shields and plastic masks, [the sound] rebounds. So it's not really very clear. So we're really doing a lot of research right now to find out which would be the best options for the kids in school."

Another option McCoy is calling for is the implementation of closed captions on all communication devices.

With some of these plastic shields..., [the sound] rebounds. So it's not really very clear.- Mary Kay McCoy on why face shields are not the best solution

She added it's going to take months before the most optimal solution for students who are hard of hearing can be decided because "until the kids are actually in school, it's going to be very difficult for us to know what is working and what isn't."

"Education is a very strong component, because it's not as easy as, 'just wear this mask.' It's distancing. It's making sure that the child who is deaf and hard of hearing is sitting in the right position of the class so that they can hear to the best of their ability," said McCoy.

"If you have an FM system, they used to get handed around from teacher to teacher. They're going to have to disinfect that or we need to find a new way."

Officials from both the public and Catholic English school boards in Windsor-Essex said their organizations have considered this issue.

Stephen Fields, communications coordinator for the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, said it was not raised as a concern to the board — but officials are prepared for it anyway. 

"We do have an itinerant teacher who deals specifically with those students who have hearing issues, as well as an audiologist," Fields said in an email to CBC Windsor.

Across the country, people have been making clear masks for individuals with a hearing impairment. McKoy says that's one of the better options being considered for use in schools. (Submitted by Taylor Bardell and Matthew Urichuk)

"They are working with the superintendent who oversees the students with special needs portfolio on developing a plan to accommodate those students and make sure that they are able to access the curriculum like all other students."

Meanwhile, at the Greater Essex County District School Board, staff who are working with students who use sign language as their primary mode of communication will be supplied with clear masks.

"This will aid the student in accessing visual cues and enhancing comprehension," the GECDSB's superintendent of education Mike Wilcox said, adding its special education department will also provide support to students who are deaf or hard of hearing on an individual basis.

"In classrooms with students who are using spoken language as a primary mode of communication, the best case scenario based on research is for the staff and students to have the disposable cloth surgical masks because the speech signal with this style of mask has the least degraded signal."

With files from Peter Duck and CBC Radio