Written By: Lisa A. Goldstein
Back in August, Tina Morris made the difficult decision to send her son Karsen—who is deaf and wears cochlear implants—to brick and mortar school because his needs were more likely to be met. Unfortunately, after only a few weeks of school, the Morrises had to pull him out.
“While the teachers were mostly accommodating,” the St. Augustine, Florida resident says, “high school education under COVID was chaotic and the masked peer interaction during class time was overwhelming.”
Expectation is one thing, reality another. A few months into the school year, many families of children with hearing loss are appreciating the positives of virtual or hybrid schooling while acknowledging the downsides.
The Positives of All Virtual
Morris explains that their options were limited because the school start date was pushed back by several weeks. They ended up removing him from the public school district to homeschool. This was a plan they never anticipated, as both parents work, and now Karsen isn’t covered by an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). They’re using the support of the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) flex plan. Each class is online with a mixture of video lessons, modules to complete, live lessons with a Florida certified teacher, projects, collaboration opportunities with other students, and one-on-one sessions with the teacher. Karsen is taking his high school classes online at his own pace and terms.
“Academically, it’s working out quite well and he is thriving,” Morris reports. “Karsen’s confidence is growing because he is able to access 100 percent of the information.” He had to restart his classes, but he will finish his first semester by December 15 at his current pace, ahead of where he would be if he stayed.
Even though Karsen no longer is protected by an IEP, FLVS has been more than supportive, Morris says. The teachers use Zoom with captions when doing live check-ins. The FLVS model requires teachers to touch base with a parent monthly, yet Morris gets updates weekly—more parent-teacher contact than she’s had in years.
“I truly feel like I know how he is academically doing,” she says.
Jillian Tweet’s nine and 12-year-old boys with hearing loss are also attending fully virtual school. Tweet, who lives in St. Johns, Florida, says it was a journey to find the right fit. “There is much more to manage in a way that elementary and middle school kids would typically not be expected,” she says.
Nine-year-old Beckett, who has bilateral cochlear implants, now receives a weekly checklist of assignments from his teacher. Prior to this, things were lost in the online system, even with his parents’ oversight.
Both boys use plastic Rubbermaid totes that are organized with all their things. This allows them to change locations in the house as needed, which has been effective. “Sometimes, if focus isn’t great, a new location can really change that for both,” says Tweet.
The Downsides of All Virtual
For students like Karsen, the flip side to his homeschooling arrangement is that he is struggling with socialization. His isolation is magnified by the all-virtual arrangement. His small circle of friends is transitioning back to in-person schooling and seem to be moving on with their social lives. Karsen isn’t sporty or musical, so there aren’t any social opportunities in those areas. He’s interested in theater, but masks are enforced there and he has difficulty with the lively, “drama filled” masked activities and interactions.
“He is naturally shy and socially conservative and was just starting to come out of his shell [when] COVID hit,” his mom says. “I’m concerned about his social-emotional health, and I’m struggling to find productive outlets for him with listening environments that are accommodating.”
Meanwhile, Beckett struggles a bit because he’s in a class with kids he doesn’t really know. His school doesn’t use cameras on the students, so kids who don’t know him aren’t aware of his hearing loss. “Because of this, our really amazing advocate struggles to speak up and let the teacher know when he doesn’t understand or hear something,” Tweet says. “He has learned that he can email his teacher within the system and let her know.”
Ryder, the middle schooler—who has a unilateral moderate loss and is unaided—has a teacher who also has kids in the classroom as well as online. Ryder seems disconnected at times because of this, his mother has noticed, and this sometimes leads to a lack of focus.
The Positives of Hybrid
Kristina Cole’s son Morgun of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is attending school in a hybrid setup. In his school district, this means two days of virtual learning, two days in person, and one day of independent learning.
The fourth grader meets with his hearing teacher every day, whether virtually or in-person. His hearing teacher works as a team with the fourth grade teacher; both discuss and plan for him daily and have been a great support. Google Meet captions have been great for Morgun, and his new hearing aids are Bluetooth-enabled for the audio. Because of his severe hearing loss, audio streaming right into his aids has been essential.
“Learning for a kiddo [who is deaf] isn’t just about listening and speaking,” Cole says. “It’s morale, motivation, environment, etc. He adores his teachers and in-person school.”
Morgun has accommodations in his IEP that allow for tests and quizzes to be read to him, extra time, and preferential seating. His school has a great frequency modulation (FM) system with the Roger mic pen and table mic.
Meredith Berger’s daughter Eila is attending school in a hybrid-virtual model with about eight days a month in-person. The fifth grader has a bilateral moderate-moderately severe conductive loss. The school has clear masks for teaching staff and is working closely with the educational audiologist.
“I think we are lucky in that they recognize us as part of the team and are open to discussing the issues and working together to identify solutions,” Berger says.
The hybrid model has proven to be a good balance for Eila, and virtual learning has pushed her to expand her boundaries and independence. She’s become more confident with emailing teachers for clarification or troubleshooting.
The Downsides of Hybrid
Cole has essentially ended up being her son’s para educator. On Morgun’s independent day, Cole works right alongside him except for when he meets with his hearing teacher. On virtual learning days, she goes over the day’s outline and reteaches anything he missed or needs help with.
“Kiddos [who are deaf and hard of hearing] and remote learning just doesn’t work well,” she says. “And we have an excellent support team! Older kids do much better. They can type and read closed captions lightning fast. The littles, not so much.”
Eila is also encountering some challenges. Her in-person classes are big and the rooms have horrible acoustics. When classes are remote, however, the teacher sometimes steps away from the computer to work with an in-person child, which makes it hard for Eila to hear, and the captions aren’t always accurate. Berger is working with the educational audiologist to get a microphone to stream to the computer so all the remote kids would be able to hear the teacher better.
Additionally, not being in school on consecutive days means technology issues aren’t easily addressed, and the general ed teachers and support staff aren’t given the time to develop competence in using the equipment.
Tweet says her biggest takeaway in meeting with both schools was that not all items within the boys’ 504/IEP plans are valid in these times. “My advice is to have open conversations with the teacher of the deaf alongside classroom teachers, so that together you can explore what can be done to fit the unique needs of your child,” she advises.
In addition to being a parent, Berger is also a hearing loss professional, as director of Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech in New York. She thinks there are two important components – what’s expected of the age/grade in terms of skills, independence, and so forth; and what the child’s strengths, needs, and skills are and how they interact with the child’s hearing loss.
“We can’t expect children to have the ability to do an analysis of the expectations, work, or environment, and then tell us their needs,” Berger says. “They don’t know themselves and if something isn’t working, they think it is their fault and everybody else has it together.”
She says parents and professionals need to anticipate how everything interacts so they can plan for how to best support them.
“We have to model for them that this is hard for everyone but hard in unique ways for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing,” Berger says. “We also try to balance that with what she herself is responsible for.”
Sidebar: Online Resources
- Phonak has sessions for educators to help with learning during COVID.
- Clarke has a range of resources for families, students, and professionals.
- Karen Anderson’s website has a blog on meeting needs during COVID.
- Knowledge Base, a website curated by Catharine McNally (AG Bell immediate past-president) and Tina Childress, an educational audiologist, with information on masks, captioning, videoconferencing, and more.
- AG Bell’s Leadership Opportunities for Teens (LOFT) Program helps high school students recognize their potential to become leaders and supports growth in confidence, self-advocacy and social-emotional skills. A vital aspect of the program is the opportunity to connect and bond with other teens who are deaf and hard of hearing. The application for the 2021 program, which will include virtual learning sessions, will open in January of 2021. To learn more, visit agbellloft.com.