‘Suffering in silence’: Charities fear impact of Covid face masks on deaf children

·5-min read
Secondary pupils in England will have to wear face masks in class when schools reopen (PA) (PA Wire)
Secondary pupils in England will have to wear face masks in class when schools reopen (PA) (PA Wire)

When Dinah Mandell heard face coverings were to be reintroduced in secondary schools she felt "anxious" about returning after the Christmas break.

Like millions of children around the country, Dinah is returning to new measures making it mandatory for secondary pupils in England to wear face coverings in lessons due to a rise in Covid-19 cases.

But the 18-year-old, from north London, who has hearing loss and relies heavily on lip reading, is worried about the use of masks isolating her from her classmates once again. With her A-Levels in sight, which she hopes will clinch her place at university to study medicine, she is concerned about their impact.

"It will be quite difficult to get involved and understand what's going on," she told the Standard.

Dinah Mandell is preparing for her A-Levels (Dinah Mandell)
Dinah Mandell is preparing for her A-Levels (Dinah Mandell)

Although there are exemptions in place, Dinah said the widespread use of face coverings in schools “puts me at more of a disadvantage than people in my class who can hear, which is everyone except me”.

“Particularly in biology and chemistry, a lot of the work is based on practicals,” she continued. “That is something I will struggle to do if I'm working with other people, hearing other people’s comments when teachers ask questions.

“Until you can’t hear it, you don’t realise how much of it makes up your learning.”

Dinah, who uses hearing aids and a note taker in class will also miss out on class discussions.

“My teachers are supportive in terms of, if I need help I can go and ask, but it’s not the same as being about to participate in the classroom,” she said.

"Being the only one in a group who is struggling with communication is extremely isolating," she said.

The teenager advocates for the use of clear face masks, saying they would “improve awareness and accessibility.”

With England reporting record levels of Covid cases over the festive period, the Education Secretary announced new measures in educational settings ahead of the new term including masks and lateral flow tests twice a week.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, speaking to MPs on Wednesday, conceded the situation was “not ideal” and said children would have to wear masks “for the shortest possible time”. Masks may no longer be required after a review on January 26.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi (PA Wire)
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi (PA Wire)

The Education Secretary has commissioned research into the impact of mask wearing on children.

Students could fall behind without extra support

A recent survey by the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) found 71 per cent of families believed their child’s learning was negatively impacted by face masks in classrooms.

Deaf children achieve one GCSE grade behind on average, compared with hearing children and “families are telling us that they are falling further behind,” Jo Campion, deputy director of advoacy at NCDS, said.

“The most important thing for us is that schools speak to the deaf pupils who may not feel confident to speak up on this.

“They may be suffering in silence, and many tell us that they are. It’s really important that schools take the lead.”

The NCDS has produced tips for schools to help minimise disruption to deaf children’s learning, including clear masks and making bigger classrooms available for deaf children during break times to sit with friends where masks can be removed safely.

Clear face masks could help deaf children in schools (Belga/AFP via Getty Images)
Clear face masks could help deaf children in schools (Belga/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s not just deaf children, but young people who have additional speech, language and communication needs that could be affected by the use of face masks.

A report by I CAN, a children’s communication charity, found 60 per cent of secondary school teachers were worried that children who are behind with their speaking and understanding will not be able to catch up.

The charity, who spoke to teachers across the England, Scotland and Wales, estimated 1.5 million children and young people could be left behind, if more action is not taken to support them.

Louisa Reeves, head of impact and evidence at I CAN, said: “The young people we work with are already struggling with communication skills, so face masks take away an additional support that help them understand what people are saying.

“If they’re not sure about what the words mean, you can look for additional clues in expression and now that’s absent.”

Calls for more deaf awareness training

The pandemic has highlighted pre-existing gaps in teacher training around deaf awareness, with some calling for more support for teachers.

Campaigner Naomi Smart said there are 11 million deaf people in the UK - a significant group.

Ms Smart, who is also a PhD student at King’s College London, is single-sided deaf and relies on lip reading to help her communicate.

With lots of background noises in a classroom, face coverings can make it more difficult for children to hear what the teacher is saying, muffle sounds and prevent lip reading.

Naomi Smart is a deaf awareness activist (Evie Chalwell)
Naomi Smart is a deaf awareness activist (Evie Chalwell)

“Every teacher should have a base level of deaf awareness training, whether that’s basic sign language, or being aware of alternative methods of communication.”

“For the most part, people are not anti-mask and understand the benefits of wearing masks, and slowing infection.

“But, it can’t be escaped that for deaf children that is going to cause a lot of difficulty.”

For further information on the charities, please visit ndcs.org.uk and ican.org.uk

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