Ensuring Hybrid Learning Audio Solutions Comply with Life Safety Requirements

Schools are trying to accommodate hybrid classrooms by installing residential systems that meet immediate classroom needs but do not meet mass notification and life safety requirements.

Ensuring Hybrid Learning Audio Solutions Comply with Life Safety Requirements

As schools and districts rush to “reopen” during the pandemic, one immediate goal is to equip classrooms with audio and wireless microphones for the teachers so students in class or attending remotely can clearly hear lessons. Some schools are even installing basic wireless microphone systems, portable audio systems, and soundbars.

However, these residential-grade systems are inadequate and do not meet any mass notification and life safety obligations required by the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA). Thus, the district and the school could be liable should the system audio not shut off during a life safety event.

Accommodating all in-person COVID protocols while also still trying to accommodate hybrid learning at home is a difficult task. Administrators are responsible for finding essential teaching tools for instructors while simultaneously ensuring campus safety in case of any emergency, including an active shooter.

First and foremost, schools and districts need to ensure that all classroom audio systems can integrate with its mass notification emergency system(s). The typical audio systems sold at retail outlets, however, are residential systems and not intended for commercial use. Even though these systems will provide the basic audio requirements, they lack the override feature to shut off classroom sound systems and give priority to the emergency broadcast to keep everyone safe. These protocols are required by NFPA and the fire marshal.

An alternative is a professional, commercial-grade wireless audio amplification system. These wireless microphone systems help save teachers’ voices — even if they are wearing masks — while keeping both in-class and remote students more effectively engaged and focused to improve academic performance. Just as important, the system is also ready for integration with a mass notification emergency system.

This is essential for immediate, effective, campus-wide communication to mitigate active shooter events or other threats. In such an event, the commercial-grade system shuts off classroom sound systems and gives priority to the emergency broadcast in order to keep students, staff, and faculty safe. This can be lifesaving when it cuts through noisy in-class and outside noise intrusion to focus everyone’s attention immediately on the emergency response.

Clarifying Classroom Speech During Remote Learning

In addition to maintaining safety, the challenges of concurrently teaching both in-class and online students are significant. Left unaddressed, teachers may struggle and students are even more likely to lose focus or become distracted.

Given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for mitigation measures, teachers are almost certain to be wearing one or even two masks (as the CDC recently advised). Some may prefer face shields. The physical barrier of material or plexiglass may be critical to preventing the spread of the virus, but it also muffles a teacher’s voice. Teachers will have no choice but to repeat statements often and may have to project their voice more than usual, leading to vocal strain.

Teachers with online students are also essentially tethered to their computer to remain in front of the microphone. This means that the teachers cannot be heard by remote students when at a whiteboard or chalkboard.

Furthermore, if a student at home is engaged and asks a question or responds to the teacher, the students in class may not be able to hear anything but the teacher’s answer. This can lead to confusion and make a classroom group discussion much more difficult.

Fortunately, many of these challenges can be resolved by implementing the aforementioned wireless audio amplification systems. Such systems have been successfully used in classrooms for many years, but have even more advantages for hybrid classrooms.

These systems can provide wireless amplification of the teacher’s voice to the students’ ears, both in class or at home. The wireless audio amplification system can simultaneously control two infrared wireless microphones and comes with a wall-mounted infrared receiver/amplifier/mixer, chargers and speakers.

The teacher simply wears a wireless pendant microphone like a necklace and their voice is amplified so it reaches all students through four speakers in the room. The teacher’s voice is also transmitted to the students learning remotely, ensuring that all students are taught equally.

Not insignificantly, this approach also helps the students in the physical classroom in the same way. Regardless of how focused in-class students may be, there will inevitably be some movement, coughing, paper shuffling or other noise that interferes with their ability to hear and learn. Amplifying the teacher’s voice ensures students can hear from the back of the room.

In good classroom acoustic environments, students with normal hearing recognize only 71% of the speech they hear. In poor listening environments, perception can fall to less than 30%.

So, for academic performance and safety, clearly hearing the teacher as well as any emergency broadcasts are essential, and can be facilitated with such wireless microphone systems.


Joe Martinez is Vice President at OWI Inc., a California-based designer and manufacturer of advanced audio systems.

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