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When coronavirus began to spread in San Antonio and area schools closed their campus doors, students across the city had to adjust to their new home learning environments. For students at Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children, this meant paying special attention to the sound quality in their homes.
“There shouldn’t be an air conditioning unit on, there shouldn’t be a TV or a dishwasher running if it is avoidable,” preschool teacher Holly Mason said she told families. “Consider laying down a rug if you have one” to absorb sound that might distract from the teacher’s instruction or prevent students with hearing disabilities from listening.
For older elementary school students, teachers told parents to broadcast the audio from online lessons directly to their kids’ hearing devices. It meant parents couldn’t hear what was going on, but it was fine for older students who could work more independently, Mason said. It wasn’t a good solution for younger students who needed nearly constant help from their parents.
Sunshine Cottage specializes in educating young students who are deaf or hard of hearing, but it also teaches those with typical hearing. The school works to close the hearing gap between children who could hear from birth and those who could not until they received hearing technology. In San Antonio, about 1 percent of residents ages 18 and younger have a hearing disability, according to a 2018 American Community Survey estimate.
Whitney Weaver’s two kids attend Sunshine Cottage: Her 3-year-old son Gideon has cochlear implants in both ears, and her 5-year-old daughter Harper has typical hearing.
“They’ve missed out on some listening time when they were in utero,” she said. “They’ve missed out on some listening time before they got their hearing technology. So now they need [the technology] on as much as possible so they can grow their language skills to the point where we want them caught up with their hearing peers.”
For Weaver, the at-home learning period in the spring went as well as it possibly could have under the circumstances. She knew the disruptive time would be challenging but understood her kids couldn’t slack off. That was especially true for her son Gideon, who received his cochlear implant when he was 1 year old.
“[For] kiddos who have hearing loss, even at that young age, it is actually even more crucial that they are learning and progressing because their brains are still wired for learning speech and picking up that language,” Weaver said. “So I think I am even more worried about Gideon than I may have been if he was older.”
Sunshine Cottage teachers often tell parents and students, “Eyes open, technology on.” That means as soon as kids wake up, they should turn on their cochlear implants or hearing aids and start listening to the sounds of the world around them.
With that goal in mind, the school kept its audiology services open for students even when its campus was closed. If a student had a problem with a hearing device, parents could drive to campus and the school’s team of audiologists could repair the device or lend a replacement if a fix would take more time.
The school didn’t want students to miss out on being able to hear by one day or even half a day, Sunshine Cottage Executive Director Mark Eads said.
The new academic year began on Aug. 11 and for the first few weeks, all students are learning from home. Campus will open after Labor Day at the earliest, Eads said in a video message to parents.
“I would love to be back in person as soon as possible just because I know there is so much benefit from that,” Weaver said. “But of course, it has to be under safe circumstances for the kids and for the teachers.”
School staff are planning the transition back to face-to-face instruction. All schools are doing this in some manner, but for Sunshine Cottage, there is added work in researching the best face-coverings that mitigate the spread of coronavirus and allow the clear broadcasting of sound.
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This work is necessary because masks muffle noise and prevent students from lipreading. Masks with a clear plastic window that show a person’s mouth isn’t always the solution. Just like glasses, they frequently fog up, Mason said.
The school is requiring teachers to wear at least a face shield when they’re around students. That type of covering muffles sound the least, but also provide the least amount of protection, Mason said. The problem is there’s not a lot of research about these topics to help school officials to make these decisions, the teacher acknowledged.
School reopening considerations can be complicated, especially when information is lacking on an important subject. But for Mason, the goals are clear.
“We need to make sure the kids can hear so that they can learn,” she said. “Especially when there are so many outside factors right now happening, so many things that we can’t control about a home learning environment that may not be ideal. We are just trying to accommodate and control what we can and provide the best sort of instruction that we can. For us, that is always going to start with listening.”