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Coronavirus and support for deaf children – information for professionals

Published Date: 02 Apr 2020

The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) will have a significant impact on how deaf children and their families are supported in the coming months. We recognise that professionals are already taking exceptional steps to keep services running. We also know that professionals will already be thinking about, and making plans to mitigate against, the many difficulties and challenges that we will experience in the coming months.

This post summarises our advice to professionals in this area. It also shares some of the tips that are being circulated by professionals on other channels. We will keep this page updated with any new issues or advice that emerges.

Information about coronavirus for families

We’ve produced a separate post for families and information for deaf young people about coronavirus – please share this with the families you’re working with. This includes information about accessible information for deaf parents and deaf young people who use British Sign Language (BSL).

There is now a dedicated NHS 111 service available 24 hours a day for deaf people who use BSL.

Closures of schools and other education settings

The Governments across the UK have announced partial or full closures of nurseries, schools, colleges and universities to help limit the spread of coronavirus. In general, schools and early year settings are remaining open for children of key workers and children who are the most vulnerable. Our understanding is that schools will be providing care or ‘supervised learning’ to children, rather than the usual teaching that would children would normally expect.

Unless a deaf child has significant other additional needs that mean they need ongoing personal care or significant social care support (and are not the child of a key worker), it is likely they will be asked to stay at home to help limit the spread of coronavirus.

More detailed guidance on school closures and vulnerable children is available on the UK Government websites:

Guidance on essential ‘key worker’ roles can be found on the UK Government websites:

Remote support for deaf children

Many schools and colleges are introducing some form of remote or online teaching to ensure students can continue to access education. Others may provide work books and written tasks for students to complete.

It is important that schools and colleges take steps to make sure these are, as much as possible, accessible and appropriate for deaf students. Peripatetic Teachers of the Deaf will have a key role to play in supporting education settings to make these adjustments according to the individual needs of deaf students.

Key considerations will include:

  • Ensuring that any online content is subtitled. Some software, for example Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams, are available with automatic speech-recognition translation – however, the feedback we have from young people is that the reliability of this can vary.
  • Additional communication support, beyond what they would normally receive, may be required for deaf young people to access online teaching. Remote speech-to-text support and BSL interpreting are now both well-established and can be delivered through software for online meetings for example, Zoom. Professionals should explore the availability of funding to support this.
  • Ensuring that deaf children and young people are able to take radio aids home with them. For many deaf children, radio aids will support them in being able to continue their learning and access sound on their computers, tablets, or mobiles. Radio aids may also help them to keep in touch with family and friends and avoid feelings of isolation. Deaf children and their families should be provided with information on how to manage radio aids independently and carefully, including how to troubleshoot any issues. Given the alternative is to deny deaf children access to education, we expect local authorities to waive any requirements they might have around insurance at this time.
  • Establishing mechanisms for deaf children to keep in touch with their education setting, any specialist support staff and their Teacher of the Deaf. Options include Facebook groups, Skype video calls or webchats, FaceTime, Zoom conference calls, Google Hangout, Microsoft Team, etc. Professionals may need to be creative in finding solutions. Although aimed at deaf adults in the workplace, a blog on The Limping Chicken website helpfully summarises the different options available for video calls.  

If you are working with deaf students in higher education, a blog on the Wonkhe website summarises the issues that deaf students may face at this time. Deaf young people in higher education may need to ask for additional funding from Disabled Students Allowance for any additional communication support needed at this time.

In Scotland, the Government has stated that it is currently producing guidance and information for families on support for vulnerable pupils. In addition, materials developed for home learning should also take into account the needs of children with additional support needs. Specialist support services will be expected to continue as far as possible.

In these challenging times, it is recognised that local authorities may need to redeploy staff, including Teachers of the Deaf, to support the most vulnerable children. We encourage professionals to work together to explore the most effective ways of providing critical support, whilst maintaining, as much as possible, peripatetic support to deaf children and families as needed.

Children with Education, Health and Care plans or statements of special educational needs

New laws (the Coronavirus Act 2020) have been passed  that will allow local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to effectively ‘suspend’ a child’s statement or Education, Health and Care plan. If this is the case, local authorities will instead be required to use “reasonable endeavours” to meet the support needs set out in a plan or statement.

The new laws are temporary and Ministers will need to issue a notice each month if it thinks local authorities might need the flexibility to suspend plans or statements in this way.

Local authorities and schools are expected to work pragmatically and flexibly with parents, as much as possible, to ensure a child’s continuing needs are met.

The new laws do not give local authorities the power to amend the contents of a statement or a plan. This means that, once any suspension is lifted, a child’s statement or plan will have the same legal status that it did before. This is the case even if a parent accepted that changes were needed in the short-term, in response to the spread of coronavirus.

Parents will also still have the right to request a statutory assessment for a statement or a plan, and to appeal the contents of it. However, the Act will also potentially suspend the duty to carry out annual reviews and (in England) for parents to request a re-assessment if their child already has a plan.

Tribunals

In terms of the work of Tribunals that hear appeals on statements or plans, the different Tribunals in the nations are currently taking different approaches:

  • England - the Special Educational and Disability Tribunal hearings will continue by paper or by telephone (and, where the technology permits) by video starting on Monday 23 March 2020.  More information about this can be found on the IPSEA website.
  • Northern Ireland - we understand that the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal is currently suspended until at least the end of May.
  • Scotland - Health and Education First-Tier Tribunals are being postponed until at least the end of June, unless the case is urgent. Any urgent hearings will be conducted by telephone.
  • Wales – we understand that the Special Educational Needs Tribunal Wales are currently looking into setting up virtual hearings.

Exams

All school and college examinations have been cancelled across the UK. Although we don’t yet have the details, any final grades will likely be calculated using a range of evidence, including teacher assessment, coursework and mock exam results. We encourage Teachers of the Deaf to inform this process, as much as possible, to ensure that a deaf child’s final grade reflects their ability.

Any final grade will have the same status as any grades given to pupils in normal years. If a young person is unhappy with their final grade, there may be an opportunity to appeal how the grade was calculated and/or to sit a final exam as soon as reasonably possible, once schools and colleges re-open.

Further information on examinations and assessments can be found on the UK Government websites:

We understand that some universities are or were carrying out assessments/examinations remotely. Universities should take reasonable adjustments to ensure that any such assessments are accessible so that deaf students are not unreasonably disadvantaged. This is a legal requirement under the Equality Act. If this is not possible, the assessment/examination should be deferred.

More information about the Equality Act and deaf children and young people’s rights in education can be found on our website.

Handling radio aids

We don’t believe that the handling of radio aids presents a risk which is any larger or smaller than the risk of handling any other devices within a school in relation to the coronavirus.

The NHS advises that everyone should wash their hands with soap and water frequently. Regular handwashing will help to reduce the risk of surfaces of any devices being contaminated.

Where there is a specific concern, we understand that radio aids can be wiped in the same way as mobile phones. However, professionals must take care to ensure that any cleaning is done in a way which ensures the device does not get wet. Any moisture entering the device could result in damage.

The key point to emphasise to teachers, if raised, is the importance of regular handwashing.

Supporting families

Peripatetic Teachers of the Deaf should consider how they will stay in contact with families, particularly those with children in their early years, if they are unable to carry out home visits. Options include Facebook groups, Skype video calls or webchats, FaceTime, Zoom conference calls, etc. Professionals may need to be creative in finding solutions.

Professionals should consider what resources they can share with families so that they can support their child’s education if they aren't able to attend school. For example, Teachers of the Deaf may wish to share our resources for families on Supporting your child's learning.

Our YouTube channel also has a range of video content that families and deaf young people may find useful.

Audiology

There are significant changes to audiology services to reduce the amount of social contact with members of the public who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus. This includes the cancellation of all routine audiology appointments. Families may therefore be anxious about how they will access audiology services in the coming months. Professionals should check that families are aware of the different ways they can access audiology services at this time.  

For hearing aid repairs, if a family is unable to see an audiologist in person, it should be possible to leave a hearing aid in a box with the clinic reception and collect it the following day. A friend or family member can be asked to drop this off if needed. Alternatively, all audiology clinics should have systems in place for repairs to be done through the post. Families should remove the battery before putting the hearing aid in the post.

It is sensible for families to make sure they have a supply of batteries in advance and the NHS will continue to supply at least two packets of batteries per hearing aid at any one time. Families should not wait until they have run out to request new ones. If families are unable to visit the audiology clinic, it may be possible to collect new batteries locally - they are often available from health centres or GP surgeries. Hearing aid batteries can also be requested through the post using the child’s 'brown book' (‘yellow book’ in Scotland) and the address on the back.

In an emergency, families can buy hearing aid batteries from Boots and other chemists, high street hearing aid dispensers or opticians.

New earmoulds for children are being made without impressions when possible. Manufacturers are re-printing moulds (based on stored scans of impressions) where available, adding a small percentage for growth and then posting to the family. Where scans are not available, services may ask families to post in one of their child’s earmoulds at a time (so that they are not without amplification altogether) and a remake can then be made from this. These are not perfect solutions but are working for some children. Where impressions are considered necessary, services will try and see children in this situation if they possibly can.

NHS and routine surgery

The NHS will be stopping all routine surgery to free up capacity and beds for those people who are seriously ill with the coronavirus. Routine surgery includes grommet surgery for glue ear, bone anchored hearing aids and cochlear implant surgery on older children.

The British Cochlear Implant Group has written to NHS Trusts asking them to consider cochlear implant surgery in babies and young children as neurolinguistic emergencies. It has also reminded them of the risk of cochlear ossification in those who have had meningitis, asking that they should still be implanted as priority cases.

For children who have already had surgery, cochlear implant centres have been bringing forward appointments and continuing to work their way through switch-ons. There are a few children left to see but teams are planning to see them in the next week or so. Teams will carry out all follow ups remotely where possible. 

Newborn hearing screening

Our understanding is that hospital-based newborn hearing screening services (which amounts to around 95% of services) will continue for the near future whilst community-based screening will close down.

The British Academy of Audiology has produced guidance on essential activity which includes the diagnostic testing of babies who have not passed the newborn hearing screen in both ears.

In practice, audiology services are continuing to offer diagnostic ABR appointments to all babies who require them when they are able to do so. Many report that parents were cancelling these appointments anyway. Some are already set up to do home visits for ABR assessments and are still offering this.

The implications of this are:

  • There will be a large number of families whose child’s screening results indicates a concern but which cannot be formally identified by an audiologist for the near future. This is likely to cause anxiety for many families.
  • For children born in areas with a community screening model, there will be a need to screen a number of children at a later point. There is a risk that some children may fall through the net at this time.
  • There may be a significant backlog of referrals for both audiology and education services, once audiology services re-open as normal.
  • There may be a number of children who will be identified as deaf later than normally than expected and who may subsequently require more intensive early intervention support.

Families who are concerned about their child’s screening results can contact our helpline for information and advice.

Disability benefits

It should still be possible to apply to the Department for Work and Pensions for Disability Living Allowance (DLA - for under 16s) or Personal Independence Payments (PIP - for 16s and over). However, there may be delays in handling applications. If successful, any benefits will be back-dated to when the application was first made.

The Department for Work and Pensions have announced that if a child or young person’s DLA or PIP was due to be reviewed or reassessed in the next month, this will be postponed and the child will continue to receive their benefit at the same level as they do now.

We understand that all face-to-face assessments for PIP are being postponed for the next three months. Instead, officials will look instead at written information that’s already been provided as well as gathering further evidence from other professionals. Young people should be contacted by the health assessment provider if they had an assessment booked in the next few weeks.

It is possible that the health assessment provider may ask to speak with your child over the telephone to collect further evidence. We have asked the Department for Work and Pensions to consider the appropriateness of this for deaf young people. Families should contact the health assessment provider to explain that the deaf young person cannot use the phone (if this is the case) and to agree an alternative approach. This might include a video call, jointly with the assessor and an interpreter (using technology such as Zoom) or a webchat. Families can contact our helpline if this situation arises.

In England, Scotland and Wales, the Social Security and Child Support Tribunal is still considering any appeals on decisions made about a child’s DLA or PIP. Similarly, in Northern Ireland, the Appeals Service is still considering appeals. These will be carried out by telephone or video. Families should contact Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Services (HMCTS) on 0300 123 1142 or (for Northern Ireland) the Appeals Service on 0208 9054 4000 to clarify the status of any hearing taking place in the next few weeks. As yet, it is unclear how these will be made accessible to deaf young people. Again, families can contact our helpline for support and advice on this.

Supporting and reassuring children

We know that many children are feeling anxious about current events and changes in their usual routine.

Other professionals have shared with us a free storybook created for children under the age of seven about the coronavirus. The book offers the opportunity to discuss the range of emotions arising from the current situation with young children and is available in different languages. Our website also includes information for families on how they can support their child’s emotional wellbeing whilst Public Health England have produced guidance to families on promoting children’s mental health and wellbeing at this time. We also have information for deaf young people on staying positive on The Buzz website.

Many families will also be feeling anxious too. Families should be encouraged to stay connected with friends and family, even when face-to-face contact isn’t possible. In addition, support may be available through local groups for parents of deaf children

Tragically, deaf children and young people may experience the loss of a family member due to the spread of coronavirus. The Child Bereavement Network provides advice to professionals on working with children experiencing bereavement at this time.  

Safeguarding considerations

At this time, deaf children and young people are more likely to be using social media and virtual communication to keep in touch with others. This will be an important way of helping deaf young people to feel less isolated and to support their wellbeing. Now is a good time to remind deaf children and young people how to keep themselves safe online.

Whilst professionals may need to be flexible in how they keep in touch with families and deaf young people at this challenging time, there are a number of safeguarding and data protection issues that you will need to consider. These are to protect the deaf young person and the family but also yourself from any misunderstandings or unfounded allegations. You should always refer to the safeguarding lead for your setting, service or local authority for any specific advice or queries.

In many cases, services or schools will be using video software like Skype or Zoom to keep in touch with deaf children and families. You should ensure, as much as possible, all such virtual conversations take place in a communal space (i.e. not in a child’s bedroom) and with other family members present. In line with your usual practice, you should ensure there is transparency about when any such virtual conversations are taking place and that these are pre-arranged with the family so that all participants are ready and able to take part effectively.

Separately, we have been asked about the use of WhatsApp. WhatsApp is becoming a widely used tool for keeping in touch with either parent carers and/or deaf young person. However, it is not without its safeguarding or data protection risks. In particular, WhatsApp is not designed for ‘business’ use and will not fully comply with data protection requirements.

We advise against using WhatsApp but, if using WhatsApp, professionals will need to consider how to mitigate such risks and whether alternative means of keeping in touch with families should be used. Specific issues to take into account when using with deaf children and young people:

  • You must have consent to contact the family in this way. As above, we advise against using WhatsApp as a means to contact families and deaf young people, but if you are doing so you must have the adult’s consent and/or parental consent for any under 18 year old to do this, as well as your manager’s and organisation explicit and written consent to do so.
  • Where appropriate and taking into account issues around confidentiality, use group chat, instead of individual conversations. For example, you could add a colleague or a parent to any conversations you’re having.
  • In line with usual safeguarding requirements, you should never use your personal mobile phone or giving out your personal number to others. You should also never create or record any images of any individuals.

In light of the above, you should consider alternatives (such as using private/closed Facebook groups) for conversations with families in line with the policy and procedures for your setting or service.  

Keeping yourself safe

At this challenging time, professionals should also take steps to keep themselves safe and well. Guidance for employees can be found on the Government website.

Keep in touch

We encourage professionals to keep their local contacts and networks live and to continue to work together to troubleshoot specific issues that arise in their area. For example, Children’s Hearing Services Working Groups (CHSWGs) will continue to have a key role to play in ensuring that services are working well together.

Whilst workplace IT issues can sometimes be a barrier, we encourage professionals to be creative in addressing how they do this. As above, options include Facebook groups, Skype video calls or webchats, Microsoft Team, Google Hangout, Zoom conference calls, etc.

There are a wide range of other issues that will affect deaf children and their families and we will keep this post updated with any new advice. We are keen to hear from professionals about any other issues and welcome their advice on how they are handling particular challenges. You can share these with us by contacting [email protected].

And remember, if you would like information or advice about individual cases, please do get in touch with our helpline.