Masks, School, and Hearing Loss

Jane Madell
December 27, 2020

Dear Readers:

During this holiday season, the editors at Hearing Health & Technology Matters (HHTM) are taking some time off. However, we are not leaving you without anything to read on our blog this week. Instead, we are publishing a special holiday edition filled with what we call our Readers’ Choices.

Our Readers’ Choices featured this week are the posts published on each of our individual blogs that drew the largest number of viewers during the year. Whether or not you have read these Readers’ Choice posts before, we think you will enjoy them.

Best wishes for a Happy & Healthy New Year!

Everyone with hearing loss or who works with children with hearing loss is aware that the mask problem during this pandemic is a nightmare. No matter how good you are at hearing with technology, masks are a problem. They muffle the speech signal and they eliminate the possibility of lipreading.

Anyone with hearing loss has difficulty managing communicating with people wearing masks. If this happens while someone is in need of medical assistance it can be absolutely horrible.

But what about school?


Medical Masks


A study published in Hearing Review in May by Golden, Weinstein and Shiman, reports that medical masks work as low-pass acoustic filters for speech attenuating the high frequencies (2000-7000 Hz) by 3-4 dB for a simple medical mask and by as much as 12 dB for N95 masks. (Reminder about basic speech acoustics – 90% of speech understanding is found within the high frequencies, but only 10% of the energy).

So for a child trying to hear what is happening this will mean that they will be missing the critical information necessary to listen and learn.


Plastic masks


Masks made of plastic or with a piece of plastic over the mouth have been tried. The idea is a good one, but a lot of people are reporting that they get fogged up making it difficult to see through.


Face shields


Face shields have the advantage of make lipreading easy. In a school situation where there is physical distancing, they should be safe.

They provide a reduction of 92% of inhaling the virus at 6 feet.  


6 foot distancing


There is no question that physical distancing will reduce the chance of spreading the virus, but it will also make listening difficult. The farther away the speaker is from the listener but softer the sound will be and the more difficult hearing will be.

If there ever was a recommendation for using a remote microphone system, this is it. Just do it.




Remember that school districts are required to provide a Free and Appropriate Education to all children with disabilities including children with hearing loss. They must make whatever accommodations are required. Listening is about 75% of the school day. We have to make it work.

When talking using a mask, remember to speak slowly.  Do everything possible to reduce or eliminate background noise. Make sure that children have technology on and that it is working. Use the remote microphone system. (Yes it is difficult with masks. Do it anyway). Check for understanding. Ask questions that do not have yes – no answers but require that the child understand to answer. Don’t shout. It will only increase vowels, not the high frequency consonants that are critical for understanding.

Leave a Reply