OXFORD COUNTY — This fall, only four courses stand between Keeton Jones, 17, and his high-school diploma. Graduation will put the Oxford County teen, who lives on a dairy farm north of Woodstock and holds down two part-time jobs, one step closer to his goal of farming full-time.
But this semester will present new challenges.
After experiencing a concussion in Grade 2, Jones sustained hearing loss in his right ear; he now has to wear a hearing aid. Jones has used several strategies over the years to support his studies. In elementary school, he used FM systems, a form of microphone that a teacher wears to broadcast directly to a student’s hearing aid or into class speakers. In high school, he says, he abandoned the device: “It was a lot to handle with carrying my schoolwork, too.” Instead, he has focused on reading lips and sat at the front of the class to keep an eye on his teacher. Now, though, public-health measures will complicate matters: in his school district, teachers and students from kindergarten to Grade 12 must wear masks to protect against COVID-19. “I can’t depend on reading lips,” he says.
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Todd Cunningham, chair of the school and clinical child psychology program at the University of Toronto, says that students who have mild to major hearing loss and are enrolled at public schools are more likely to face challenges related to the mask-wearing requirement than are those who attend provincial schools for deaf children: “Most of the provincial schools, their students use sign language, and they have a lot of other specialized staff and supports there which will be able to help them out. But I think it’s more of those students who are in the mainstream classes who do have a hearing impairment that are more at risk for losing a source of information that they often look to.”
Andrew Canham, a special-education superintendent with the Thames Valley District School Board, notes that some students in the public system do use sign language and that their learning will be easier to accommodate “relative to a student that is relying on, for example, lip reading” because “we have a number of itinerant educational assistants who are very proficient in sign language, and they are assigned to our students and sign in class for them.”
Many parents are concerned that the masking will isolate their children “because the kids aren’t going to hear what the other kids are saying,” says Mary Kay, president of the non-profit VOICE for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children. Her organization recommends that school boards use clear masks — and make them available to teachers and classmates.
Yet masks with clear plastic are not ideal for use with FM systems, she says, because they create more background noise than do surgical masks, cloth masks, and N-95 masks: “Sometimes [depending on the type of plastic used] it vibrates, so, when people are talking, [the noise] rebounds off the plastic.” And, according to Val Jones, Keeton Jones’s mother, they also sometimes fog up, making it difficult to lip read.
Kay is also concerned that boards are taking different approaches to handling students who are hearing impaired: “There’s nothing straight across the board that the government has said for the schools to do, so every school board is doing what they feel is best.” And not all school boards have access to the same equipment and supports, she notes: the number of FM systems available varies from place to place, for example.
“I would say that our practices, school board to school board, are very similar — especially amongst the larger school boards that offer similar services,” says Canham. However, he acknowledges that smaller school boards may lack some of the services, such as congregated classes or itinerant teachers, that their larger counterparts can provide.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education told TVO.org via email that clear masks are on order and that the government is working with boards to ensure “appropriate supply and delivery of all personal protective equipment.” School boards can request funding for FM systems if needed, they added.
Canham says that his board has already received and distributed 15,000 medical-grade plastic masks. Each one-time-use mask costs $6, making it considerably more expensive than the standard 20-cent medical-grade mask used in other classrooms. The current supply is expected to last about a month and a half.
Kay, though, thinks the return to school has not been properly prepared for: “We’re not ready,” she says. “[Educators] don’t know what they’re going to do for the kids.”
Another government spokesperson told TVO.org via email that “as the school year progresses, the Ministry will continue to maintain close contact with school boards, parents and stakeholder groups, including the Minister’s Advisory Council on Special Education and the Education Standards Development Committee.”
Cunningham says that teachers are going to have to find creative ways to ensure that students can hear them clearly: “For this population, we do know that wearing masks will make it harder for them to hear what’s being said by the teachers, and it will be harder for them to communicate. We have to be much more diligent about reaching out and finding ways to accommodate them.”
For example, he says, teachers could check in after a lesson and ask students to repeat points back to them. And parents should do more speaking at home, unmasked, with younger children still in the language-development phase “so that they can hear all the crisp pieces.”
According to Cunningham, the biggest challenge with the current situation involves the lack of research. “We don’t really know what is the overall … long-term impact of having face coverings on language development for students who have hearing impairments,” he says. “But we can speculate that there is going to be some.”
Back on the Jones family’s dairy farm, Keeton says his greatest worry is that, because of all the extra hurdles, he won’t be able to graduate within the year: “I will have to be paying attention a lot and staying focused.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
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