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Education support for deaf children – coronavirus information for professionals

Published Date: 24 Nov 2020

Re-opening of education settings

This blog includes information on our return to school guidance. It also include information about face masks in education, as well as support for any remote learning. It includes practical tips and suggestions for professionals continuing to work through very challenging circumstances.

Though there have been lots of changes in education in recent months, one thing that hasn’t changed is the legal duty for education settings and local authorities to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that deaf children and young people are not disadvantaged. It is also important that no ‘blanket policies’ are applied which do not take into account the individual needs of deaf children. Any such blanket policies may be seen as unlawful.  

Changes in the classroom

In order to limit the spread of coronavirus and keep children and teachers safe, there have been some changes in the classroom that will likely impact on deaf children, including:

  • Class sizes may be reduced to smaller groups or ‘bubbles’. Some groups may be led by a teaching assistant, working under the supervision of a teacher.
  • There may be limited mixing of groups within the school. Exemptions to this may need to be made for children to access specialist teaching in wider groups (for example, such as for a deaf child who attends part of the day in a resource provision).
  • Classroom layouts may change.

There have also been changes to how deaf children receive specialist support. In particular:

  • Education settings may want to restrict the number of external visitors coming in and ask for support to be provided remotely instead. This might include peripatetic Teachers of the Deaf. However, in England and Wales the Governments have explicitly said that peripatetic teachers can continue to visit schools. However, in Scotland, the Government has said that such visits should be minimised and that support should be provided remotely instead as much as possible. Similarly, in Northern Ireland, specialist staff can visit schools, although as much should be done remotely as possible. Our view is that peripatetic support should continue to be provided as much as possible, especially if children will be significantly disadvantaged without this support. There should be no ‘blanket policies’ where a decision is made not to allow any external visits or visitors without taking into account children’s individual needs. 
  • Some teaching assistants may be used differently. For example, they may be asked to ‘lead’ groups within the school. They may also be asked to observe social distancing rules when supporting individual children. Our view is that, where teaching assistants or communication support workers have a specific role in directly supporting individual deaf children, they should not be redeployed to other roles.
  • Where children are in resource provisions, there may be new rules to restrict the movement of children between a classroom and the resource provision. Our view is that any such rules should take into account the individual needs of deaf children and the importance of being able to access specialist support. In England, government guidance allows for the intermixing of children of different age groups for the purpose of specialist support.
  • There may also be new hygiene restrictions around handling or sharing equipment or devices, such as radio aids. For example, teachers may be asked to ‘clean’ radio aids before using them. This must be done carefully to avoid damage to the radio aid – see later section on ‘Handling radio aids’.
  • Some schools or colleges may be providing ‘catch-up’ support or tuition to individual children or young people. It is likely that they will focus on the most disadvantaged children or young people. Our view is that it will be important for Teachers of the Deaf to be involved in advising on any such catch-up support or tuition for individual children, particularly if this support is being provided by someone who has not worked with a deaf child before.

Return to school guidance

We encourage parents, schools and Teachers of the Deaf to discuss how any return to school will work in practice and how deaf children will be supported. This will be especially important if a decision is made to use face coverings in classrooms. Our guidance sets out a number of issues and questions around the needs of deaf children to consider for the planned re-opening of schools and colleges:

In Northern Ireland, the Sensory Service has also produced guidance on how to support the learning of deaf children in schools and classrooms.

Whilst we recognise the challenges and public health considerations in this area, we encourage professionals to continue to be creative, pragmatic and flexible in ensuring that individual deaf children receive the support they need, as much as possible, and that the necessary reasonable adjustments are made. In any risk assessments being carried out, we expect there to be a consideration around the risks to individual deaf children if they do not receive specialist support as usual (e.g. if they cannot receive direct support from a peripatetic Teacher of the Deaf) and for these risks to be considered against public health concerns. We also expect there to be robust consideration of any mitigating actions that can be taken to address any such concerns. 

A joint open letter from the National Deaf Children’s Society, the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf and the National Sensory Impairment Partnership to schools and colleges sets out the importance of continuing to meet the specialist needs of deaf children as education settings re-open.

In the event that it is not possible to carry out face-to-face assessments, our blog provides advice on carrying out assessments virtually with deaf children.

Face masks in education

There are slight differences in the UK Governments’ positions on face masks/coverings in education:

  • In England, face coverings should be worn by students in year 7 or above, and staff when moving around the school or in communal areas in secondary schools. However, the Government has said that face coverings are “not necessary” in classrooms and “should be avoided”. Pupils in year 7 or above should also wear face coverings when using school transport.
  • In Northern Ireland, it is strongly recommended that students over the age of 11 wear face coverings in school corridors and communal areas. Face coverings must be worn by post-primary pupils when travelling to school, and are strongly encouraged for children of any age when travelling, if they can do so safely. Face coverings are not recommended in routine classroom settings but the Government has said that it is “acceptable” for staff and pupils to use face coverings during the routine school day if they wish.
  • In Scotland, face coverings should be worn in the classroom by senior secondary-aged pupils (in S4 to S6) and teachers/other staff if the school is in a level 3 or 4 area under the Scotland Covid Protection Level. Elsewhere, they should be worn by pupils aged over 12 when moving around the school (such as in corridors) and in communal areas. They should also be worn when using school transport (if aged over 5). They should also be worn by parents when drop-off or picking-up children at any school. Apart from S4 to S6 pupils in level 3 or 4 areas, the Government has advised that face coverings are not necessary when in the classroom. At the same time, teachers and pupils can wear face masks or coverings if they would like to. Schools have been told to specifically consider the impact of using face coverings with deaf children and should explore reasonable adjustments when these present a barrier to learning.
  • In Wales, face coverings should be worn by pupils over the age of 11 in communal areas and/or on school transport. Otherwise, Welsh Government guidance does not require their use in the classroom. Schools have also been told to specifically consider the implications around face coverings for deaf children, as well as other learners.

Where face masks or coverings are required, exemptions will apply. For example, a face mask/covering can be removed if needed to communicate with someone who lipreads. Our blog for families on face masks provides more information on these exemptions.

The wider use of face masks or coverings in education is something that has significant implications for many deaf children, and which causes anxiety to many families. The key point to emphasise is that education settings are still required to make reasonable adjustments to ensure deaf children are not disadvantaged. Teachers of the Deaf will have a key role to play in identifying the impact on deaf children where face masks or coverings are being worn and advising on reasonable adjustments. Examples of reasonable adjustments might include:

  • Where face coverings are required/being worn, wearing clear face masks or coverings instead. However, it should be emphasised though that clear masks/coverings may still cause communication challenges
  • Using radio aids. This may include providing radio aids to children who had not used them before
  • Taking more stringent steps to optimise the listening environment and reduce background noise
  • Taking additional steps to remind everyone in the school of the importance of good deaf awareness
  • Securing additional communication support, including remote speech-to-text reporters and sign language interpreters
  • Separate one-to-one teaching and support, without the use of face masks/coverings and in rooms where social distancing can be achieved and/or through a Perspex panel.

We are calling on all UK Governments to ensure that any guidance or advice on face coverings in education emphasises the impact these have on deaf children, and the need to take reasonable adjustments to ensure continuity of learning. Our position paper provides more information. 

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 coronavirus.

The NHS advises that everyone should wash their hands with soap and water frequently. Regular hand-washing will help to reduce the risk of surfaces of any device 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. Teachers of the Deaf should ensure that education settings are clear on how to do this safely. The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf have produced advice on this. 

Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans or statements of special educational needs

Earlier in the year, local authorities in England and Northern Ireland were able to ‘suspend’ a child’s statement or EHC plan for a short time. This has now ended and statements and plans have the same legal force as they did before the coronavirus pandemic.

It is possible that the England or Northern Ireland Government may issue a notice to allow statements and plans to be suspended again. It is also possible that the Welsh Government may also allow this for the first time. To do so, the relevant Government will have to issue a notice to allow this. We will be keeping a close eye on this and will update this blog if any new notice is issued.

Remote teaching and online learning

Remote teaching and online learning may be in place in some areas, particularly where there are local lockdowns. There may also be some pupils who cannot attend school/college because they are self-isolating.

It is important that schools and colleges take steps to ensure these are, as much as possible, accessible and appropriate for deaf students. Education settings are required to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that deaf students can continue to access any remote teaching or online learning alongside their peers. We encourage all education settings and services to consider the needs of deaf students in any contingency planning they may be doing around potential future closures.

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.

In England, a Temporary Continuity Direction has been issued. This requires schools to provide remote teaching if a child cannot attend school because of coronavirus (because they are self-isolating or if there is a local lockdown). This duty applies to children from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if they attend schools in England. In Wales, the Government has also stated that “a further lockdown or a period of blended learning does not absolve local authorities of their duty to provide a suitable education.”

Some things to think about

We have published a separate blog which provides a checklist for teachers on how they can ensure any remote teaching is deaf-friendly.

Some specific issues to consider:

  • Subtitles or BSL content. Some education providers are adding subtitles to some of their online content, e.g. BBC Bitesize daily lessons whilst all of the videos at the Oak National Academy are subtitled and some BSL interpreted.
  • For online teaching, some software (e.g. Google Hangouts and Microsoft Team) is available with automatic speech-recognition translation and there are some apps that do the same – however, the feedback we have from young people is that the reliability of this can vary.
  • We understand that, where individual pupils are self-isolating, some lessons may be live-streamed, allowing pupils to access lessons at home, alongside other pupils in the classroom. Consideration will need to be given to how any live streaming of lessons will be made accessible to deaf pupils – in particular in terms of positioning, ensuring that the deaf pupils can clearly see the teacher and is able to participate in any discussion.
  • Additional communication support, beyond what they would normally receive, may be required for deaf children and 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 (e.g. Zoom). Professionals should explore the availability of funding to support this.
  • If a child already had a radio aid, 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.
  • Whether families have access to any equipment they need for their child to access remote teaching or online learning at home. Funding may be available from UK Governments to purchase laptops, tablets or connection packages. 

In Northern Ireland, the Sensory Service has produced tailored guidance on online learning.

Resources for home learning

Professionals should consider which 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 top tips blog or our Helping your deaf child to learn resources for families. The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf website also includes a list of useful resources for home learning.

Guidance to support families with home learning can also be found on the UK Government websites: 

More information from each of the UK Governments


Northern Ireland