Overcoming Listening Challenges of Reopening Schools in COVID-19 Era

Educators, school administrators and others providing services in schools face new challenges as schools plan for classrooms that can pivot between remote and in-person learning, as well as hybrid models to keep classroom populations low. Likely measures, including masks worn by both educators and students and physical distancing minimize the risks of COVID-19 transmission, but pose additional barriers to learning.

Maintaining a learning environment where students can both hear and effectively process information through listening is critical for learning to occur, especially for young children.

Lightspeed recently hosted a webinar, bringing together experts in audiology and classroom and instructional audio technology to offer insights to how a classroom’s sound environment can impede learning and ways technology can help overcome the barriers.

Linking sound to understandable speech

Dr. Carol Flexer, Ph.D., CCC-A, LSLS Cert. AVT, explained the role of acoustic accessibility in the learning process, enabling the brain to receive and process information. Flexer, an audiologist and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Akron, illustrated how poor or even average acoustics in a room hinders a student’s ability to hear and understand speech, which in turn makes them work harder to listen. Layering in COVID-19-related measures such as masks and physical distancing may exacerbate those challenges, Flexer said.

“When there’s a decrease in understanding, it uses up cognitive resources for comprehension and thinking capacity that ought to get spent for processing information rather than just receiving the information,” Flexer said. “For children, the end result will be a high risk for a slower pace of learning.”

The quality of both audibility – or the ability for the speech to be “heard” – and intelligibility – or the ability for speech to be understood – is especially important for children, who are developing intrinsic knowledge to help process information, Flexer said.

“They don’t have decades of life experience, so we have to make sure their brains receive high-integrity information,”  Flexer said.

Safety measures present new challenges to listening

Noting that about 75% of what children learn in the classroom is through listening, Dr. Carrie Spangler, Au.D., CCC-A, described how environmental factors, such as reverberation, background noise, physical distancing and even the direction of a speaker’s voice can significantly degrade auditory accessibility.

Although much continues to change about how the coming academic year’s learning model will be implemented, the likely use of masks during in-person classroom sessions, physical distancing, and ventilation modifications represent significant challenges to all students’ ability to hear instructional information, but especially for students with who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Masks – a key tool to preventing community spread of COVID-19 – especially decrease the ability to access auditory information by muffling volume and clarity, and blocking key tools to filling in auditory gaps and deciphering speech, such as speech reading and facial cues, said Spangler, Lead Educational Audiologist for Summit Educational Service Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. She added that such increased challenges may also lead to greater isolation, levying a social and emotional toll on students who are deaf or have hearing loss.

For educators, the masks may drive added voice fatigue as they attempt to compensate by raising their voice or find themselves repeating themselves as students struggle to hear. Masks may also impact student behavior, as they fidget or struggle with wearing them throughout the class day.

The increased challenges underscore the importance in considering the “Listening Lens” as new instructional models are developed and technologies implemented, Spangler said.

“There’s a real big balancing act between being safe and healthy and also ensuring that we can do our job as educators in providing a free and appropriate education,” Spangler said.

Expanding learning access through audio systems

Merri Bragg, MA, FAAA, a regional sales manager for Lightspeed, shared models using Lightspeed products that improve the auditory accessibility for students whether they are learning in the classroom or at home.

Lightspeed offers lightweight, portable, tabletop systems and easy-to-install wireless ceiling systems paired with wireless teacher microphones to provide clear audio throughout the classroom, and through remote learning platforms. The portable system, Redcat Access, which is battery-powered, can also be used in outdoor settings. Such voice amplification may be crucial as schools prepare for models that require masks for both teachers and students.

“By providing the teacher with a specialized designed wireless microphone, his or her speech is evenly distributed throughout the classroom so that every child is able to clearly hear every word from anywhere in the classroom or learning space,” Bragg said.

In addition to an instructional speaker systems and Media Connector, Lightspeed’s T3 Flexmikes can be implemented for use by each student in the classroom to ensure communication can be heard by all, without requiring teacher management to quiet background cross-talk or chatter. This approach may be important in hybrid classroom models in which half of students are learning remotely, or even in cases where the teacher is instructing remotely.

“With the utilization of a properly designed system, students stay engaged and focus on the teacher and even fellow students when doing peer-to-peer learning,” Bragg said.

Lightspeed continues to collaborate with schools across the U.S. to implement audio solutions to enable every child, whether learning in the classroom or remotely, to hear clearly.

Learn more about how classroom audio environments impact learning and what schools can do to adapt by watching the webinar “Understanding and Overcoming Listening Challenges When Schools Reopen.