As we all know, the IU masking policy is changing as of March 4th, making masks optional in most campus locations. While we are hopeful that this is a step towards getting back to a campus experience that we’ve all missed, I’ve been hearing a bit of consternation from instructors, not knowing how this will impact classroom dynamics. So, I want to address some of the issues involved and explore some possible ways we can help students through the coming weeks, as they adjust to new classroom and campus environments. And no matter your personal view of masking, chances are this change is going to impact your students in a variety of ways.
I will say from the outset that I am not talking about policy here, but rather the pedagogical implications of a significant change like this. About how to support your students—no matter their masking preferences—as we collectively navigate a change in our classroom and campus cultures. If you are wanting policy guidance or interpretation, talk to your department chair.
I am grateful to the IU faculty members who shared their thoughts with me about what challenges lie ahead for them, as well as the steps they are taking to navigate this change and support their students’ learning. I’ve only cited a few of them directly below, but all their comments have informed my thinking.
Why this change matters
Our students—like most of us—have spent the past two years feeling like they have had things done to them. Pandemic policies meant their options were limited in dining, entertainment, travel, education, and more. And that takes a mental toll on people. We know how important self-determination and agency are for mental health and motivation, and the change in masking policies are going to show us these impacts in varied ways.
For students who are eager to shed their masks and return to a sense of normalcy, the removal of the mask regulation is going to empower them, letting them feel a bit more control over their own lives, and maybe helping them engage on more personal levels with classmates and instructors. For students who are continuing to mask, however, the rule change may make them feel less in control over their environments and personal safety, adding more stress that can interfere with learning. I suspect most of our classes will include a mix of these students, making issues like agency, safety, and interpersonal relationships complicated matters moving forward.
For more on these impacts on student learning, see the CITL resource on trauma-informed teaching written by our colleague John Keesler from the IU School of Social Work.
How this might impact your classes
The impacts of these masking changes will vary widely based on your class and student dynamics, but here are a few ways we might see it play out in our classes:
- Physical spacing in class might become challenging if you have a mix of students who remove or keep their masks. If your classrooms are packed tightly, will that make anyone uncomfortable who is still nervous about COVID?
- Group work may be awkward for the same reasons. Students may not be comfortable working closely with classmates who don’t share their masking preference. And, yes, this could go both ways, as unmasked students may feel communication is harder with masked teammates.
- Interpersonal dynamics might be complicated. We probably all have experienced some sort of value judgements based on masking during the course of this pandemic. I read a humorous take on this a few months back: People who mask less than me are thoughtless and too risky, and people who mask more than me are paranoid and judgmental. Will any of these judgements cause conflict among your students, impacting collaboration and classroom discussions?
What you can do to help students adjust
Your students may need your help in navigating the changes surrounding the updated mask policy and its implications for your course. This can range from ways you can structure class activities and processes to how you can provide guidance and support to students unsure about how to adjust. Here are a few ways you can help your courses move forward in purposeful and supportive ways.
Talk about it
We know from research around 9/11 and subsequent crises that students want instructors to address change, tragedies, and other events that impact their lives. Even if the situation doesn’t directly connect to the content of your course, and even if this masking change isn’t a crisis, per se, it is important to acknowledge how this change might matter to them and effect how they engage in their academic work—positively and/or negatively. Further, letting students know you have a plan for any necessary course adjustments will remove the guesswork and worry, helping them focus more of their cognitive and emotional resources on learning.
You might also choose to share your personal decisions around masking, not to influence their decisions (I always try to be aware of power dynamics), but to model positive communication skills and show students how we can productively talk about topics that sometimes seem too loaded to discuss. You can help normalize conversations about masking preferences, which alone is a big service to your students. I am not saying you have to disclose more than you feel comfortable with, but a little vulnerability and honesty can go a long way to building healthy relationships in any class. And we should all become more comfortable talking about our needs and boundaries. (And, yes, this goes both ways, too. I have friends and colleagues who find masks significantly impact their ability to communicate with others, or that contribute to some anxiety issues.)
Gather more information
Do you know what your students think about the change in masking policies? I’ve talked with a few instructors who have had informal conversations with students before or after class, but we may lack ways of understanding broader patterns of student preferences and concerns.
Several instructors I have talked to are planning to gather information from their students through an anonymous Canvas quiz/survey or a Google form, trying to understand students’ comfort level with unmasking and asking what the instructor could do to make them feel more comfortable in class.
Laura Brown (Chemistry) is also anonymously asking if any students identify as high-risk (or live with someone who is) and is planning to share the results with the class so that they are aware of how their peers are feeling, with a goal of increasing empathy. While our decisions on masking are now individual, we should encourage everyone to make those individual decisions within the context of our communities. Even if having more information about the preferences, motivations, and concerns of those around me doesn’t change my decisions, it can help me be more conscious and thoughtful about my decisions and how they may impact friends, colleagues, classmates, and students.
What other types of questions might be useful in such a survey? Here are a few I’d be interested in asking:
- What is their comfort level in class without masking? (Maybe with an “I’m cool” to “I’m scared” scale.)
- What does this change mean to them—positively and/or negatively?
- How would they feel working closely with a masked/unmasked person on an in-class team or larger group project? Why?
- What could I do to make they feel more comfortable in class, so they could focus on learning?
I would also encourage asking questions in ways that might prompt some self-reflection, so students are recognizing their own motivations, needs, biases, and boundaries. That, along with Laura’s goal of promoting empathy, is a great side benefit to gathering information from students.
Modify group work
How much group work do you do in your course, and how might shifting dynamics and comfort levels around masking impact teams in your class? Do any students feel uncomfortable being really close to unmasked students? Do any students find it difficult to communicate with a teammate wearing a mask? Does this mix of masking in a group cause them concern? I am not necessarily suggesting we need to segregate our groups into the masked and unmasked, but we do need to be aware that trust and communication are already important parts of any group work, and additional barriers to them can damage learning goals. How do you already talk to them about group work, and how can you leverage those lessons in navigating this change?
Jared Allsop (School of Public Health) plans to address these issues by letting students self-assign to groups and select the method of interactions that work for them. This flexibility provides students with some self-determination that will likely lead to higher comfort levels, better motivation, and greater focus on learning goals. Generally, research suggests self-selection leads to less productive teams, but the more immediate needs right now may outweigh those issues. Just be aware of potential equity/inclusion issues (is everyone getting teamed up equitably?), and this approach could be a useful way of addressing group challenges in the short term.
In established teams where changing membership mid-term might be impossible, consider ways that you might structure some negotiations of how the team does its work. Can they agree to masking during meetings, meet online, or pick meeting locations where everyone is more comfortable (i.e., not an enclosed study room in Wells Library)? If this might be an issue in your class, providing some guidance and suggestions for those in-team negotiations is far better than just expecting students to figure it out on their own. Again, if you purposefully address group work practices, come back to those core teamwork lessons to help them figure out new ways of working together. As I’ve often said, students don’t necessarily hate group work, just poorly structured group work.
Offer Zoom options
Offering a live Zoom option for classes (or class recordings via Kaltura) continues to provide opportunities for students to connect from home if they feel ill, and that is probably more important now that a cough or sneeze in class can be worrisome. This is a good time to reinforce that guidance and make sure your class policies support it.
While instructors aren’t supposed to completely change modalities for a whole class or individual students, you still have flexibility to accommodate short-term student needs, so consider that some students might benefit from a temporary move to remote learning, particularly while you work out details to make them feel more comfortable in class. If you’ve not already received guidance about remote learning options from your department or school, I encourage you to have those conversations now, since I don’t want anyone to violate department policies or expectations.
Offer online office hours
During his February 23rd “Ask Aaron” comments, IU Chief Health Officer Aaron Carroll said that instructors shouldn’t decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to have office hours in person or online, and that they should treat all students equally. I’ve heard from several instructors that meeting with unmasked students in their small offices makes them uncomfortable, and they’d feel compelled to continue wearing a mask after the student leaves. If this concerns you, you have the option of online office hours, which have been accepted well by many of our students, given the size of our campus and the busyness of their schedules.
Many IUB instructors are already experienced offering online office hours, having established the practice during remote teaching in past semesters. Even after we returned to predominately on-campus instruction, many have continued this practice, typically to provide students flexibility and to make it easier to discuss on-screen projects like coding (both of those links go to video interviews with IUB instructors). If you are new to online office hours, or plan to utilize them more heavily, take a look at our Implementing Online Office Hours quick guide, which provides suggestions ranging from scheduling tools to security/privacy practices.
What do you think?
How are your students reacting to the shift in masking policy? Are you seeing any impact on your in-class activities? What are you doing to help them navigate this change? How are your students reacting to your approaches? Drop us a comment and we will get it posted for others to view.
Deeper dives and resources
Want to learn more about the concepts behind these suggestions? Check out these resources.
Teaching during a Crisis (CITL): This resource explores how to teach during a crisis that impacts students. While the change in masking policy isn’t necessarily a crisis as defined in that resource, a lot of the information about supporting students is quite relevant.
Trauma-Informed Teaching (CITL): Written by John Keesler (School of Social Work), this resource provides guidance for teaching students who may be struggling with trauma or mental health challenges. It could provide some insight into students who are still struggling with the pandemic and may not react well to the masking change.
Self-Determination Theory and Motivation (Verywellmind.com): This page explores the importance of being able to make choices and manage our own lives, as well as the impact that self-determination has on mental health and motivation. It’s a good overview for not just our current situation, but also about how choice can improve student engagement and performance.