SINGAPORE - Specially designed face masks for teachers are being made so that deaf students can lip-read what they are saying through a plastic see-through portion at the mouth area.
As schools reopen, about 300 such masks will be distributed over the next few weeks to 150 teachers and allied education staff from the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf), Lighthouse School and Canossian School.
Several contributors, such as Ms Chan Siang Choo, 56, have spent the last few weeks revising prototypes and making the masks diligently.
Ms Chan had in April sewn hundreds of masks that were distributed to the vulnerable.
Now she has turned her hands to making these customised masks, which need about half an hour each.
She makes about three or four daily as she juggles this undertaking while working from home as a senior director at an IT company.
On weekends, sewing for seven to eight hours at a go, she can make up to 16 masks.
These masks will benefit the deaf students who rely on lip-reading to complement sign language.
While transparent face shields could be used in this situation, recent Health Ministry guidelines indicate that face masks should be used instead of face shields in most situations, though both offer adequate basic protection.
Ms Chan was approached about this initiative by a friend, Ms Rebecca Teo, who had heard that SG Enable was looking for people to help. Ms Teo, now retired, is a former SG Enable board member.
The pair have been working together to produce the masks, as Ms Chan uses a sewing machine and Ms Teo does the portions that require hand stitching. They have made about 50 so far.
Local bag designer and sewing specialist Uyii is also involved in making the masks.
SG Enable head of partnerships Ivan Chin said that during the agency's regular engagements with the deaf community, it found out about the potential challenge that could arise when everyone is required to wear masks in class.
He said: "With see-through masks, deaf students from schools participating in this pilot will be able to read lips and facial cues of their teachers, and communicate more effectively with them."
Schools are set to reopen in phases from June 2, including special education schools.
Ms Chan said that they went through several prototypes after receiving feedback, such as picking a thicker plastic material that would be less flimsy, and using solid colours for the mask rather than patterned materials that would be distracting for the students.
To fix the problem of the plastic fogging up, she looked up a quick solution on Google, which was to rub soap on plastic and let it dry.
"It was a sense of achievement, when you hold it up and it works. But the uncertainty is there, like whether it is breathable and comfortable when worn the whole day," said Ms Chan. The pair will continue to fine-tune the pattern after more feedback, she added.
Ms Barbara D'Cotta Ang, head of the deaf education department at SADeaf, said she believed the masks will help teachers communicate with students who are deaf and hard of hearing.
"(The students) have found this period especially challenging as there tends to be miscommunication on account of not being able to see one's facial expressions and movement of the mouth," she added.
The special mask design could have a more universal application as well, said Mr Chin.
He added that such a design could be used by healthcare workers conversing with patients or food handlers speaking to customers, so listeners can read facial expressions better and make out more clearly what is said.