Guide To Teaching and Learning

Masks and Communicating

While most students and faculty are comfortable not wearing a mask in classrooms, faculty are encouraged to…

Treat mask wearing as a community agreement. 

We all are coming from different places in terms of degrees of comfort level with being masked and/or around unmasked people, especially indoors, especially in possibly small learning spaces and in close proximity to others. As faculty, we can’t mandate wearing or not wearing masks, but we can agree to recognize and respect that different people have different feelings and for different reasons and agree to behave accordingly: with respect for others’ concerns.

In general, establishing community agreements at the start of the semester sets up an equitable, inclusive and supportive classroom. But community agreements can be introduced at any time. If you haven’t used them before, consider implementing community agreements with your class as we move into an environment in which some students will be happy to remove their masks and others may be apprehensive that they’re doing so. Community agreements establish a community of mutual respect.

The most frequently used community agreements are:

  • “I” statements: I can speak only from what I know, I think, I feel, I hear, as in ‘I heard you say’ rather than ‘well, you said’, which is an invitation to an argument rather than an opening to discussion. Because ‘I heard you say’ is usually followed by ‘Well, that’s not what I meant…’ 
  • Acknowledge intent, recognize impact: Intent may have been benign or even supportive, but if the impact was hurtful, offensive, or dismissive of another’s experience, it can shut down rather than encourage discussion.
  • We will speak with one mic: That is, truly, only one person is talking at one time, which is directly related to …
  • Practicing active listening: Focus on what’s actually being said. And then ask yourself, Student: does something need to be said here and am I the one to say it?
  • We agree to challenge ourselves and be uncomfortable together: We cannot guarantee intellectual and emotional safety but we can agree to be uncomfortable and challenge ourselves when it’s difficult.
  • More about community agreements,  additional examples and why they are effective is available in the Guide to Teaching and Learning.

In the context of establishing community agreements for your class (including yourself), you can introduce concerns about mask wearing and the issue of respect for different comfort levels.

Even if you don’t introduce these more general community agreements, we recommend discussing the issue of mask wearing and encouraging the class to agree to respect each other’s choices and to behave in accordance with different students’ comfort levels. Establish that everyone–students and faculty–agree to respect each other’s choices and behave in ways such that everyone feels supported.

Important points:

Masked and unmasked students must be treated equally.

Faculty should not ask students about why they may or may not be wearing masks. Faculty should not treat students differently based on whether or not they are wearing a mask. 

So for example, you can’t do desk crits with masked students and not do them with unmasked students. All students must be treated the same. All activities and interactions should work regardless of a student’s masking status. If you are not comfortable doing desk crits with unmasked students, you should not do them for any student. Alternatives?

  • Consider using a Mural board. 
  • Consider looking across the whole class for commonalities and address the class. 
  • Consider recording personal feedback in Canvas to a discussion board (and shorten the class meeting accordingly). 
  • In place of live demos, can you record it out of class (or do you already have a recording)?

Faculty are advised to consider how they can craft or revise assignments and activities that can accommodate different masking comfort levels. For instance:

If this is an activity in which students will pair up, can they be told that, if either is uncomfortable, for instance a masked student and an unmasked student, 

  • the unmasked student will not turn to face the masked student while speaking. We do not know if that makes a difference in terms of transmission but it may make a difference in terms of student comfort level, and therefore the student’s ability to engage in the activity rather than being concerned about possible transmission. And it shows respect.
  • they can relocate to a larger space such as the hall or even outside to allow some distancing between them.

If you have planned an activity to be done by student groups or teams, can this activity be done outside of class time in a location that allows for student comfort with or without masks?

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