Why One A-Level Student Is Campaigning For Clear Face Masks In Schools

Dinah Mandell relies heavily on lip reading and says the government has not done enough to help deaf pupils.
Year 10 students wearing face masks at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on January 4, 2022.
OLI SCARFF via Getty Images
Year 10 students wearing face masks at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on January 4, 2022.

An A-Level student is urging the government to provide transparent face coverings in schools to ensure deaf teenagers aren’t penalised by the new face mask laws.

Dinah Mandell, who is 18 and from north London, has hearing loss and relies heavily on lip reading to learn and interact with friends during the school day.

She’s now “dreading the return to school” after the government announced face masks would be reintroduced in English secondary classrooms following the Christmas break.

“In Spring 2021, when face masks were first introduced into the classroom environment, the supply of clear face masks was low, and I was lucky to get hold of a limited amount from a local deaf charity,” Mandell tells HuffPost UK.

“Now, with such short notice from the government, and with no announcement of any additional support or provision for students like me, I am not sure how easily my school will be able to get hold of sufficient supply of clear face masks for my teachers, let alone my friends, to wear. ”

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said face coverings would be required in schools in England until at least January 26, when ‘Plan B’ Omicron restrictions will be reviewed. These laws are already in place elsewhere in the UK.

Around 35,000 deaf students will be impacted by the laws, according to the National Deaf Children’s Society. Although teachers can remove masks at their own discretion when interacting with deaf students, Mandell says this does not always happen.

A Level student Dinah Mandell.
Dinah Mandell
A Level student Dinah Mandell.

Back in March 2021, Mandell launched a petition calling for better support for deaf pupils and other children with special educational needs who are disproportionately impacted by face masks. At the time, the then education secretary Gavin Williamson responded by saying teachers should “be sensitive to the additional needs of their students”.

The petition gained more than 45,000 signatures, but Mandell says Williamson’s words did little to help. She’s now re-opened the campaign calling specifically for schools to be provided with transparent face coverings, note-takers or sign language interpreters, and additional hearing technology.

“The government argues that those working or communicating with students who rely on lip-reading are exempt from wearing masks, but in practice this doesn’t happen, and some may not feel comfortable with this – which is why we’re asking the government to act urgently,” she says.

Mandell feels fortunate to have better classroom support than some others. Her teachers wear a radio aid – a microphone that is worn around the teacher’s neck to amplify their voice to her hearing aids – but she still relies on lip reading in situations with a lot of background noise, and to understand her classmates.

“As a final year A-Level student, a lot of my classes involve significant amounts of debate, discussion and group work,” she says.

“There is already a lot of uncertainty about what will happen in the future, for all students. I am in the middle of my applications to medical school, and a small change in my grades could snatch away from me this opportunity, which I’ve worked so hard for.”

Transparent face masks could make a huge difference in schools.
BRUNO FAHY via Getty Images
Transparent face masks could make a huge difference in schools.

HuffPost UK has contacted the Department for Education regarding Mandell’s updated petition and is awaiting response. Addressing the topic last spring, a DfE spokesperson told The Telegraph: “Our guidance is clear that any children and staff who rely on lip-reading or facial expressions to communicate do not have to wear face coverings in school.

“Throughout the pandemic schools have been able to make adjustments for children with additional needs, so they can learn and be taught alongside their peers.”

As we approach two years into the pandemic, Mandell is unimpressed with the efforts made to help deaf children and those with other special educational needs or disabilities.

“It feels extremely frustrating that the government has once again neglected our access to education. We’ve been campaigning for clear masks in schools since the beginning of 2021, and I feel angry that the government has still not addressed this sufficiently, despite having plenty of time to!” she says.

“There is already an education gap – research by NDCS in 2019 show that deaf students receive a whole grade lower in their GCSEs than their hearing peers – this education gap will inevitably widen further without urgent and significant action.”

You can view Dinah Mandell’s online petition here.