Adjusting to Mask-Optional Teaching

Contributed by the CTL Director, Susanmarie Harrington

Provost Prelock announced that as of Saturday, March 19, masks are now optional in most indoor locations at UVM. The policy change announcement acknowledged the ways in which students, faculty, and staff have repeatedly adapted to the pandemic. As we think about coming to campus next Monday for the first classes that will occur with this new policy guidance, we enter a new period of adjustment. Faculty, staff, and students no doubt have a range of thoughts and feelings about studying, living, and working amid COVID, and that range will affect our classrooms. Some of us had the chance yesterday to talk with students about the shift, and heard reactions that included excitement, relief, happiness, worry, sadness, confusion, fear. We’ve been wearing masks, and enduring the pandemic, for so long, that this mix of emotions is completely understandable.

Since March 2020, every aspect of our lives and work have been affected by the pandemic and becoming a mask-optional campus is another milestone in this journey. Some of us will welcome the ability to be on campus without wearing a mask; some of us will continuemasks to wear masks. Some of us will feel relieved by this shift; some of us will have questions, concerns, or fears. It may be helpful to leave some space in our classes to acknowledge that policy changes affect our learning spaces—and to note that we can, with compassion, continue to create learning communities together.

Throughout the pandemic, the CTL’s workshops and consultations have emphasized compassion for students and instructors and the importance of clear communication. We’re using these themes to think through what a pedagogical transition to a mask-optional campus might look like. We welcome your thoughts and questions now, and we look forward to hearing from you as the semester continues.

Approaching change with compassion

Compassionate teaching begins with awareness that each person in the classroom brings a broad lived experience with them. There are many reasons that students and instructors alike might feel some nervousness about being in the presence of unmasked neighbors—for example, immunocompromised people, caretakers of those unable to get vaccinated, people at higher risk for complications from a COVID infection may wish for higher levels of masking in public places. At the same time, other students and instructors might feel pure joy at the return of maskless classes. With a whirl of emotions in play, your students may be sitting near people who are making different masking choices than they are. While our campus policy now emphasizes individual choices about masking, we can encourage everyone to consider their individual choices in context. We will all be navigating anew the ways our individual choices affect the people around us. Just as we took time in the earlier months of the pandemic to recognize how students’ learning was affected by broader change, we can help students think through this new change. Transparency is the best way to assure students that you’re managing class with their learning in mind.

Modifying group work as needed

As we move through the remaining weeks of the semester, group work may be complicated if group members have different approaches to masking. Consider asking groups to be thoughtful of others when making their masking choices. Depending on the nature of your assignments, you may be able to re-form groups so that students are matched with those making similar choices. If groups are solidified in membership, you can support them in using their group skills to negotiate any differences. Groups with divergent masking preferences might use remote tools to complete their work, for example, or may be able to change their work sites. If you guide students to communicate with each other respectfully and clearly, and you assist them in finding ways to accommodate the divergent approaches in their group, it will help to keep them focused on their tasks.

Communicating about classroom experiences

Colleagues on campuses that have already transitioned to mask-optional status report that masking behavior can vary widely. A thoughtful post by the Indiana University CTL suggests that instructors could gather information from students by asking questions about how the shift in mask policy is affecting them, and use the sense of the class as a starting point for conversation. In small classes, we can open up discussion directly.

However, because there is so much about masking that is now up to individuals, opening up this conversation might be challenging. If your class is already in the habit of negotiating classroom agreements about policies or standards, you could be in a good position, with processes and norms for negotiating shared approaches. But in a very large class, or in a class where students are accustomed to simply receiving class policies from you, this isn’t practical. It could generate unfairly critical feedback as the semester ends from students who have strong opinions about behavior you simply can’t control. You can always influence classroom culture by being explicit about your own masking choices, helping students to see how they can think through what difference masking/not masking makes in your particular class.

Masking can be a polarizing issue in the absence of mandates. It makes sense to assume that students have a range of feelings about being near people who are making different mask choices and to do your best to communicate that you welcome and support all students.

Please stay in touch

For the past two years, our teaching has worked because of our generous and supportive teaching community that values what matters most for students. In almost every workshop, we come back to the question of what instructors really want students to be learning and how instructors could make sustainable teaching choices in this challenging time. Clarity about this has helped shape your choices about activities and accommodations–what assignments could be put off or redesigned and what activities could be transformed for a pandemic. That same sort of thinking may be helpful now, if you think divergent views about masking may affect the ways your assignments or activities will play out as the end of the semester nears.

The CTL is always ready to partner with you as you teach, and we look forward to hearing from you about what it’s like teaching on a mask-optional campus. What in-class pedagogical questions come up? How are your students navigating in-class changes? What would you like to talk about with your colleagues?

We’re all learning together, and we are more resilient for the conversations we have together.

About CTL

Center for Teaching & Learning, University of Vermont
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One Response to Adjusting to Mask-Optional Teaching

  1. Rosi says:

    Thanks so much for posting this! I know of many who are nervous about returning to some form of “normalcy”! I appreciate this and all you do to keep us well-educated! Sincerest thanks!

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