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When Kitsi Bass encountered challenges with face masks in her job during the pandemic, her supervisor and staff got creative

 - Stefanie Mickel, left, and Kitsi Bass show off their new face shields that the entire kitchen crew are now wearing in the Crook County School District's Nutritional Services Department.

For people who are hearing impaired, being in public when people are talking is like being surrounded by people who speak a different language, and they hear their voices but can't understand what they are saying—or see their facial expressions.

That is how Prineville resident Kitsi Bass described her experiences with people wearing masks in public during the pandemic when she is trying to communicate. Bassi is hearing impaired and needs to read lips. For those who struggle with the unintended consequences of masks in public, the experience can be overwhelming.

"I was born with severe hearing loss and I am deaf in my right ear and basically 75% deaf in my left ear," explained Bass. "I wear hearing aids and have since I was two or three years old. I don't look at this as a handicap or disability—it's a way of life."

When Bass was hired in the Nutritional Services department at Crook County School District this spring, she once again ran up against the issue of being able to see her co-worker's lips who had previously worn cloth face coverings.

"When I see people wearing a mask, all I see is this wall being put up and my ability to communicate has been completely shut off," she went on to say. "So, when I see a person wearing a face shield, my face lights up, and I think to myself, "Yes, I can see them."

She clarified that by "them," she meant their lips and facial expressions.

"My boss, Denny, ordered face shields for me and my co-workers to use because he knew I would benefit from them," elaborated Bass. "Unfortunately, they were heavier and bulkier than expected, but my co-workers bought me a face shield that was lighter."

Stefanie Mickels is one of Bass's co-workers in the Nutritional Services kitchen. She has a background in working with students with disabilities.

"Taking the time to help accommodate them or spend one-on-one time with them has shaped me into who I am," she elaborated. "It doesn't take any more effort to wear the shield than it did the mask, and if it helps somebody else out and they are able to communicate, that is my biggest thing."

She added that for Bass, seeing someone's mouth is really important. She indicated that she was happy to wear the shields because it helped her to communicate with her.

"I feel very grateful that all four of them were willing to wear them because of me. I couldn't ask for a better boss or better co-workers," said Bass.

Denny Bauldree, Nutritional Services Supervisor for CCSD, said that originally his staff wore masks, but they soon came to realize that Bass could not really serve or work with employees because she could not hear or read their lips. As a result, he had them order face shields for all the nutritional staff.

"That was the best possible solution we could think of at the time to adapt for her, so we just did it," Bauldree noted.

He explained that the shields have also elevated the rest of the staff's experience and ability to communicate better in the kitchen by being able to see each other's lips since the kitchen is noisy most of the time.

Communication and Community Engagement Specialist Jason Carr explained that each school district had to provide an Operational Blueprint for Reentry Plan for their school district and submit it to the Oregon Department of Education.

According to the CCSD blueprint, "Face coverings, clear plastic barriers or face shields are required for staff who are regularly within six feet of students and/or staff, to include: staff who support personal care, feeding, or instruction requiring direct physical contact; staff who will sustain close contact and interactions with students; bus drivers; and staff preparing and/or serving meals. When six feet of physical distance cannot be maintained by Crook County School District staff, all staff must wear face coverings. Clear plastic face shields, if available, are preferred because they enable students to see their faces. This avoids potential barriers to phonological instruction and reinforces social-emotional cues."

"The Department of Education has allowed in its guidelines for face coverings to basically allow for a variety of different types," Carr explained.

He added that the guidelines allow for the flexibility to help staff like Kitsi Bass. The Crook County School District has always strived to find innovative ways to accommodate students and staff to find the best way to work around any kind of challenge—whether it be the workplace or in the classroom.

Bass indicated that when the coronavirus first hit, she did not go shopping alone at all because she was very overwhelmed by everyone wearing the masks. Her husband would go to the store for her or they would go shopping together at Walmart.

"I had to go into the store alone one time and asked someone to please remove their mask because I read lips—so they talked louder," she said of one of her experiences in a store alone. "That was frustrating! After a couple of months, I decided to go shopping alone, and I get into the check-out aisles where people are wearing face shields at self-check-out."

She added that when she cannot use these check-out aisles, she kindly explains to the checker that she is hearing impaired and needs to see their lips.

"Most of the time, it's been good," she said.

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