Masks forever?

What would that mean?

When the SARS virus hit China in 2003, many people who live in that part of the world adopted masks as a way of life. Even after it was no longer an active threat, I remember seeing photos of people on mass transit in several Asian countries where everyone was wearing a mask. I remember thinking “that looks uncomfortable.” I seemed as though it had become culturally accepted to wear a mask in public. After the MERS virus in 2012, I remember reading an article about how it had become expected in many countries that if you had a cold or were coughing, it was expected that you would wear a mask.

But it still seemed far away, and mask wearing seemed fairly new. In 2008, I traveled to Beijing to give two keynotes at a conference of law school Deans and Associate Deans, just after China had hosted the summer Olympics. I was there for a full week, and I do not remember seeing anyone wearing a mask, so I seems as though mask wearing abated after SARS, but then became more common after the MERS virus. It seems as though much of Asia had a head start on mask wearing, well before Covid.

It seems forever ago, but it was only 19 months, that we started learning about wearing masks here in the United States. I remember my wife - a lifelong sewer - making a few in March last year when they were hard to come by, but it was not long before many, many different options became available. Now, near the door to our garage, we have a large bowl full of different sorts of masks, in a rainbow of colors and patterns. You probably do too.

As a teacher, I have seen masks affect my work in primarily three ways. First, in the inability to read the faces of my students. I can see their eyes, but I can not see much else, and so those cues of understanding (or misunderstanding) that we used to rely on to adjust our teaching on the fly are unavailable. This is undeniably a loss, for us and for our students.

Second, while I was able to lead classes for the first month of the semester without a mask on (as long as I wore one to and from class), that rule was narrowed in September, and I have since been required to wear a mask to teach. I think the loss there is similar to the first one - my students can not read my facial expressions, most particularly to see that I am smiling and glad to be there. It makes everything more serious and dour than perhaps it should be.

Third, having one-on-one conferences with students is a significant part of my teaching method. These provide another opportunity to get to know them, and for them to get to know me. Most importantly, it helps me review their work with them, line by line, word by word. A related matter is office hours - when students can be assured I will be in my office, and can just drop in to talk about the course, or broader questions about school and career plans. All of these meetings - office hours and one-on-one scheduled conferences - have all been held over Zoom this semester.

For much of the last 19 months, most of us have been behaving as if, thinking as if, assuming as if… this will end at some point. That perhaps Covid will become “endemic,” but with a vaccine, boosters, and a viral pill, it will eventually fade into the background. And we will all get to take off our masks and go back to the way things were in “before times.” We will be able to empty out the “mask bowls” in our houses, and move on.

But what if we do not? What if we wear masks for much longer, or soon after Covid fades, there is another viral threat? Or what if we (mostly) wear them through the flu season every year? What if becomes culturally expected - at least in some parts of the country - that if you are sick (with anything) that you will wear a mask in public? How would such a world affect us as teachers?

Such a thought seems just as foreign as wearing them at all did (except in hospital settings) just 20 years ago around the world, and much less than that in the U.S. But it is possible, and so it seems prudent to being to think about how long-term mask wearing will affect the teaching art.

Concerning the first impact, it has been a loss not to be able to see my student’s faces. But it has not impeded the effectiveness of our work overall this semester, at least to judge from their work product so far.

Concerning the second impact, I would like to think that my students being able to see my face makes a significant difference… but that is probably just vanity. They do not really care what my face says - they care about the rest: what tools I am providing them, the feedback, the one-on-one conferences.

Which leads me to the third impact, having all out-of-class meetings over Zoom. Much has already been said about how Zoom has plusses and minuses. I would say on the positive side that it allows me to see my students faces, and they mine. And we can very easily review a document together - with share screen. Of course, I still have “drop in” office hours, and this can be done at greater convenience to them and to me over Zoom. But the distance can feel artificial at times.

Of course, this is only my experience, while teaching in a graduate school. I am sure that teaching in the K-12 space has other impacts that I have not observed. But I worry that I have heard (on Twitter, Insta, and hallways) teachers feeling hopeless about the future, and unable to conceive of a world where mask wearing persists. I get that, but if it should happen, I think we can still function as teachers, and well. It just brings some new challenges to a career that seems to involve new challenges every year!

Letters of Recommendation

Last week, I offered three recommendations of newsletters that I have been enjoying reading, and promised to do that this week again. Here are this week’s recommendations:

Ken Lamberton writes The Big Yard, Birdwatching in a Time of Quarantine. He is an accomplished birdwatcher, so he brings that expertise to his weekly missive. But the best part is the pictures of the birds he sees. This one on hummingbirds is particularly beautiful:

The Big Yard
The Big Yard: Birdwatching in a Time of Quarantine
Day 527 of the Pandemic (August 27, 2021) At that rare time, when a hummingbird trains its eyes on you, you’ll recognize something that for all the world looks like deliberation. Like you’re being…
Read more

Breana Bayraktar writes Tips for Teaching Professors. Each letter includes very thoughtful suggestions to improve your teaching, whatever the context. A recent issue of her newsletter focused on:

Tips for Teaching Professors
Tip: Project-Based & Task-Based Learning
Often we when talk about authentic assessment, the conversation focuses on alternatives to final exams or major course projects. Trying to envision how to change these high-stakes tasks can feel overwhelming, especially when connected to concerns about…
Read more

Andrew Janjigian writes Wordloaf, about bread baking. Every issue is mouthwatering, but perhaps none more so than the series he is running this month about making Pizza. I doubt anyone could read this one without getting hungry:

Recipe: Sicilian Slab Pizza
Slab Pizza (PDF version) Makes one 1200g half-sheet pie, serving 6 The texture of this pizza is very different than other square/Sicilian-style pizzas. It should be pillowy-soft and light as clouds with…
Read more

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Question:

How do you feel about the possibility of a future in which we will continue to teach in masks, to students who are masked, and continue to use Zoom widely to meet with our students?