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Education support for deaf children – coronavirus information for professionals

Published Date: 24 Feb 2021

Government guidance from across the UK on school closures is currently changing quickly. We will do our best to keep this blog up-to-date with the latest information.

Latest information on school closures

Across the UK, many schools and colleges are currently closed to most children. Instead, remote education is being provided. Below sets out our understanding of what government guidance currently says in each nation:

  • England. Mainstream schools and colleges expected to re-open to all pupils from the 8th March. Special schools and early year settings can remain open in the meantime.
  • Northern Ireland. Pre-school, nursery and primary school pupils in P1 to P3 will return to full-time face-to-face teaching from 8th March but only for 2 weeks. From 22nd March, they will go back to remote learning while students in years 12 to 14, who have GSCEs and A Levels this summer, will return to full time face-to-face teaching. After Easter, all of these pupils may return to school. Other pupils will be phased in ‘as soon as possible’, but with no definite dates yet confirmed. Special schools can remain open in the meantime.
  • Scotland. The Scottish Government is proposing a phased reopening with nurseries and primary schools (for pupils in P1 to P3) reopening from the 22nd February. Some secondary aged pupils in S4 to S6 may be allowed to come into school to complete any practical work for national qualifications. Otherwise, other children will continue with remote learning.
  • Wales. Schools and colleges to remain mostly closed until February half-term. As well as children of key workers and vulnerable children, schools can remain open for children undertaking exams or assessments. Childcare settings, special schools and specialist units can remain open. Children will return to school in a phased capacity on February 22nd, starting with the youngest age groups first. Schools will receive a two week notice period before reopening to pupils.

In most cases, universities are providing remote teaching only, except in a number of priority courses (for example, medicine). 

In most cases, schools are remaining open only for children of key workers or children who are ‘vulnerable’ in some way. Generally, the definition of vulnerable includes children with a plan or statement around special or additional needs support, or those who are receiving support from social care. In England and Wales, the definition of ‘vulnerable’ children can also include those who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home. 

Though these are extremely challenging times for everyone, it remains important that deaf children continue to receive the specialist support they need to access education.

Where deaf children have a statement of special educational needs or an Education, Health and Care plan, these documents currently remain in force. Though there may be some practical challenges around how support is provided, with schools being closed, any support set out in these documents should legally continue to be provided.

Remote support for deaf children

As schools and colleges move to remote education for many children, it will be 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.

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. This duty applies to children from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if they attend schools in England. Schools are expected to provide three to five hours of teaching a day, depending on a child’s age. If this is not being provided, the Department for Education advises that parents should first contact their child’s teacher or headteacher, and then report the issue to Ofsted. Schools and colleges are also expected to publish information on their website about their remote education offer.

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. We also have a separate blog on remote learning in further education.

If you are creating new resources, we have also published accessibility ‘how-to’ guidelines for providers and companies on how to make their resources accessible to deaf children and young people.

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.
  • 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.
  • For remote 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.
  • 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. Some mobile phone companies are also allowing free access to some education websites on their mobile phone packages.

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

Even after additional support is provided, if a deaf child is finding it difficult to engage with remote learning, there should be a discussion between the family, school and Teacher of the Deaf on how to ensure the child can still access education. Even where schools are closed, they are still expected to remain open for children who are considered ‘vulnerable’ in some way. In England and Wales, the definition of vulnerable children includes those who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home. Depending on what education and support is being provided in schools in these cases, returning to school may be an option to consider for some deaf children. 

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: 

Emotional wellbeing

Our blog summarises some of the resources available to education professionals to support children’s emotional wellbeing at this time.

When schools and colleges re-open

As before, it will be important to ensure that any changes to the classroom environment, in response to coronavirus, do not disadvantage deaf learners. 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 and speech and language therapists. However, in England and Wales the Governments have explicitly said that peripatetic teachers and therapists 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. Any such blanket policies may be seen as unlawful.
  • 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 both England and Wales, government guidance explicitly 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.

In England, attendance at school will be mandatory unless a child needs to self-isolate or is shielding.

Advice to schools and colleges

More detail on the issues to consider around education support for deaf children and young people in schools and colleges can be found in the below guidance documents.

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

As before, 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.

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

The UK Governments’ have slightly different positions on face masks/coverings in education. There are also differences on whether face coverings are required in communal areas, school transport and/or in classrooms. The below sets out our understanding of what is currently required:

  • In England, staff and students in secondary schools and colleges are advised to wear face coverings in all areas, including classrooms, where social distancing cannot be maintained and as a temporary extra measure. It is also recommended that face coverings are worn in communal areas in secondary schools too. In primary schools, it is also recommended that staff and adult visitors wear face coverings where social distancing is not possible, though children do not need to. Schools and colleges are expected to be sensitive to the needs of deaf children in deciding whether it’s appropriate to wear a face covering. Guidance states that ‘transparent face coverings’ can be worn. It also states that face visors or shields should not be worn as an alternative to face coverings and should only be used following a risk assessment.
  • In Northern Ireland, it is compulsory for post primary pupils to wear face coverings in school and at drop off/pick up areas unless an exemption applies. For younger children, face coverings are still 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. Detailed guidance on mitigating the impact of face coverings on the education of deaf children (in all settings) was issued by the Department of Education as an annex to new guidance for special schools.
  • 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 staff and 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, although individual may choose to wear them. 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 to 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/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

Last year, local authorities in England and Northern Ireland were able to ‘suspend’ a child’s statement or EHC plan for a short time. These powers are not currently in force, and statements and plans have the same legal force as they did before the coronavirus pandemic. We recognise that, with schools and colleges closed, there may be some practical difficulties around how support is provided. However, we encourage professionals to continue to be as flexible and pragmatic as possible in ensuring that the necessary specialist support is provided, as much as possible.

It is possible that the England or Northern Ireland Governments 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.

More information from each of the UK Governments

Guidance from the UK Governments can change quickly. Below, we have included what we think are the most useful links at this time.

England

Northern Ireland

Scotland

Wales