Teaching in a Mask (at BU & beyond)

Updated by Ben Keating on 9/28/21

BU’s face covering policy, which requires masks “to be worn indoors in classrooms, offices, public common areas, the BU Shuttle, and healthcare facilities,” is designed to protect the BU community. Teaching in a mask, however, presents a unique set of challenges. 

This Guide presents tips to help instructors meet these challenges by protecting their voices, engaging students, and choosing the right gear.

The Guide also includes an overview of the specific circumstances in which BU’s policy allows instructors and students to remove their masks.

Tips*Take what’s helpful to you and leave the rest!* 

Establish Expectations

  • Consider establishing course-specific masking guidelines that adhere to BU’s masking policy so that students know what to expect. A course-specific policy can help set boundaries and open a communication channel with students. (See below for an overview of limited masking exceptions at BU.)
  • Maintain communication with students by checking in regularly about any questions or concerns students might have about masks in your classroom. Consider an anonymous survey for this purpose.

The Gear

  • For intelligibility, surgical masks and N95 masks may be better than cloth and transparent masks, according to articles from the Acoustical Society of America. (At BU, gaiters, bandanas, neck fleeces, scarves, and masks with exhalation valves are not allowed.)
  • Glasses fog up, despite adjustments, as the bespectacled well know. Practice maintaining your flow of speech and pretending to see, even as you remove your glasses to wipe them down (Thanks to Charlotte Brunton for this somewhat funny tip!). 

Protecting Your Voice

  • Consider diaphragmatic breathing to project your voice and avoid strain. This means inhaling into your belly and using your stomach muscles, not your neck or upper lungs, to project your voice. 
  • Be intentional about drinking more water than usual. Your voice will be stronger if your vocal cords remain lubricated.
  • Save your voice by creating short explanatory videos to play in class or posting to Blackboard for students to review out of class.
  • Consider adding active-learning activities to give you and your voice mini-breaks throughout the class session. For example, break up lectures with short activities. Flipping longer lectures/demonstrations that you might have done during class time will allow you to use class time for learning activities that students may have originally been scheduled to do outside of class. 

Volume vs. Pacing, Clarity, Facial Expression, and Body Positioning

  • Attend to the pacing and clarity of your voice, as well as your body positioning and your facial expressions. They are just as important as volume. 
  • Slow down and enunciate to help students process what you’re saying. Remind your students to do the same.
  • Try to avoid talking while facing away from your students. Practice writing on the board, facing your students, and then speaking. Silence might fill the space between; use it to rest your voice.
  • Despite masks, students can read facial expressions. Smile, when inclined, under your mask—a smile is reflected in your eyes and in your tone of voice. (While it is possible to interpret a masked facial expression, ambiguity is also possible. Remind students to give you and others the benefit of the doubt!)

Students as Partners

  • Ask students for a thumbs-up or a head nod to indicate they’re following the conversation, or ask your students to interrupt or wave, if they can’t hear you. 
  • Some faculty are returning to asking students to raise a hand if they have a question or comment, as facial expressions are often a critical cue for turn taking in multi-person conversations. 
  • Have the students identify themselves when they talk.

Build Community with Video and Images 


Limited Exceptions within BU’s Masking Policy

Here, we have excerpted four key exceptions to BU’s masking policy. Notice that these exceptions allow students as well as faculty to unmask under certain circumstances. We provide these exceptions so that faculty are aware of them and can make their own informed choices. Please contact your chair or dean with concerns or questions. 

  • “An individual faculty member, lecturer, TA, or student speaking at the front of a classroom may choose to remove their mask while they are speaking. In these cases, we strongly recommend that the speaker move to a twice-weekly testing cadence and remain 12 feet away from others while unmasked.” (Policy, para 2)
  • “Similarly, mask exceptions may be considered for programmatic activities that are substantively impeded by masks, including theater productions, performing arts classes, and athletic competitions.” (Policy, para 2; we recommend faculty confer with their dean or associate dean to determine if this exception applies to their class.)
  • “Any time masks are not used indoors, we recommend using badge checks for all in attendance, increasing testing frequency, minimizing the number of people unmasked at any given time, and maintaining enhanced physical distance whenever possible.”  (Policy, para 2)
  • “When you are alone in your private room, suite or apartment in University residences; private office; or an enclosed private workspace, you do not need to wear a face covering or disposable mask.”  (Policy, para 9)