Returning to the Classroom in Fall 2021

Update, November 2021: Many instructors have shared concerns about students struggling with the return to in-person classes during the fall semester. See our guide to Helping Students Plan for a Successful Conclusion to a Challenging Semester for suggestions about how to help students navigate the final weeks of classes.

As we prepare for a return to in-person teaching in Fall 2021, many instructors have expressed concerns about safety. This resource is designed to respond to your concerns about effective teaching in the current environment. Please note that the most current information about campus safety protocols is available on the University’s COVID-19 Health & Safety page and in the Classroom Guidance for Fall 2021.

If you have other questions or concerns that aren’t addressed here, please feel free to reach out to ITLAL at teachingandlearning@albany.edu or request a consultation. We would be glad to talk with you individually and will also update this resource as appropriate.

How do I ensure that my students wear a mask in the classroom?

There is currently a mask mandate on campus, which means that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, must wear masks in the classroom. The University has informed students of this requirement. It is important for instructors, also, to remind students that you will ensure that they are safe in your classroom by requiring everyone to wear a mask at all times. Below is some sample language you might include in your syllabus to show students that mask wearing isn’t just a requirement, it’s an important measure to protect them and their fellow students.

A note on classroom safety. One of my most important jobs as your instructor is to ensure that our classroom is a safe place, and I will need your help to do that job. The practices described here are based on the current information we have about reducing the risk of transmission of the coronavirus. Please be sure that you enter the classroom wearing your face covering, and keep it on for the entire class period. I will do the same. Also, to ensure that everyone is wearing their mask throughout class, the University has prohibited eating and drinking in classrooms this semester. If you haven’t already, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the University’s Fall 2021 Protocols and Requirements for keeping you safe during COVID-19. During the first week of class, we will work together to create our own set of expectations for how we will all work together to keep each other safe, including how we will share concerns with each other when they arise.

What can I do if a student comes to class without a mask?

It is important to address this issue directly but also compassionately and with students’ health and safety in mind. As in any case where you are addressing an issue with an individual student, it is best to speak with the student in as private a manner as possible. Here’s an example of language you can use to speak to a student who enters class without a mask:

“Hi, Jaime. It looks like you forgot to put on your mask before coming to class. Could you please do that so we can continue with class? I just want to make sure you and everyone in the classroom stays safe. Thanks!”

During the first couple weeks of classes, students who forget a mask can pick one up at the Campus Center.

What if a student refuses to put on a mask?

Most students will comply with an initial request, but in the case that there is a repeated issue, you may need to remind the student of the importance of your request and the potential consequences. Again, try to have this conversation with the student privately if possible. Here’s an example of language you can use to respond to a student who is repeatedly non-compliant:

“Jaime, I am glad that you came to class today, and I really want you to participate. But I also have to be mindful of your safety and that of everyone in the classroom. I need you to comply with the mask requirement, or I’ll have to ask you to leave class. I’m also required to make a report to Community Standards.”

If a student continues to refuse to comply, you can ask that student to leave the classroom and file a COVID-19 complaint form. This complaint will be sent to Community Standards, who will follow up with you if any additional information is needed. They will then contact the student.

How can I articulate my concerns about health and safety without raising student anxiety?

While the goal is for this semester to feel more “normal,” the reality is that we are still facing a major public health crisis. Students will want to know that you are thinking about classroom safety and that you care about their physical and mental health. The sample syllabus language above is one way to reassure students that you have made deliberate plans with protecting them in mind. Also plan to spend some time on the first day of class to address the protocols you’d like to practice to ensure the classroom is as safe as possible, and ask them to contribute any ideas they have. If you can come to a shared understanding as a class community about how you will keep everyone safe, students will feel less anxious.

How can I find out what my students’ concerns or anxieties are?

It is important to keep lines of communication open with students so they feel they can share their concerns with you. One great way to establish this communication is to send a “welcome letter” before the semester begins. (You can do this by email or Blackboard announcement.) Use this letter as an opportunity to reassure students that you are planning your class with their safety in mind, and you can also ask them to respond to some questions that will help you ascertain what they are worried about. ITLAL’s guide to communicating with students includes a sample welcome letter and survey questions.

How can I accommodate students who have to miss multiple class meetings?

It is likely that you will have students who need to miss multiple class meetings because they need to quarantine or isolate as the result of exposure to COVID or possibly because they become ill. As per University guidance, instructors should provide appropriate and reasonable accommodations in these cases. This means that it is important to have contingency plans in place so those students have access to the resources they need to keep up with (or catch up on) work they miss during their absences.

  • Posting all course materials including readings, slide decks, assignments, etc. in Blackboard each week can help prevent these students from falling behind. Creating this structure in your Blackboard course from the beginning of the semester is also helpful as a contingency plan in case we have to shift to remote instruction at any point during the semester.
  • If you recorded lectures for this course in the 2020-21 academic year, you can make those available to students who have to miss classes due to illness.
  • If you have the capability to do so in your classroom, you can record your lectures using Zoom and post them to Blackboard for students.

Do I need to be prepared to move to remote teaching during this semester?

While the current plan is for a fully in-person academic year, it is difficult to predict how the virus will spread in the coming months. It is a good idea to have a contingency plan for a pivot, even if only temporarily, to remote teaching. Making a habit of posting all course materials in Blackboard is a good step in this direction, but it is also helpful to plan for how you would execute your teaching plans in Zoom if necessary. We invite you to request a consultation if you would like help with contingency planning.

How do I ensure that students can hear me if I am wearing a mask while teaching?

Instructors who are able to maintain at least six feet of distance from others in the classroom can remove their masks while teaching. If you are in a classroom where distancing isn’t possible or you don’t feel comfortable removing your mask, you may face some challenges that can be addressed by slowing down and keeping lines of communication open with your students. Here are some suggestions:

  • On the first day of class, spend some time talking with students about how they will signal to you if they are unable to hear clearly. Students may need to feel that they have “permission” to interrupt or ask you to repeat things they were unable to hear. Let them know, also, that you will periodically pause so they have the opportunity to ask questions or request that you repeat something. It will be important for you to know that students will feel comfortable telling you if they are unable to hear or understand what you’re saying.
  • It is important to speak slowly and deliberately (probably more than you might if you were unmasked). This should help you enunciate more clearly and gives students time to process what you’re saying, which works differently without the visual cues we have when we can see an unmasked speaker.
  • If you have access to a whiteboard or document camera in the classroom, it is helpful to write down terms or phrases that may be particularly challenging (like specialized terminology) so students can see them and don’t have to rely on listening alone.
  • Consider giving students an outline (on a slide, the whiteboard, or a document camera) that can help guide them through the structure of the class period and/or your lecture. Refer back to this outline when you shift from one part of your lecture to another so they can stay oriented. This context can help students listen more effectively.
  • Pause frequently and ask students if they have questions or need anything repeated.
  • Take breaks from lecturing and ask students to use what you’ve just taught to respond to a question or attempt their own problem solving. This is an important way for you (and for them!) to determine if they have missed key ideas. They may not realize they didn’t hear something until they try to use what they’re learning.

Can I have students work in small groups during class?

Classrooms will be populated at normal capacity this semester, which means that students will not be socially distanced as they were in the 2020-21 academic year. Students will already be in close proximity to each other in the classroom regardless of whether they are talking to each other in small groups or not. That being said, the decision to have students work closely together is really a decision that every instructor has to make based on their own comfort level (and that of their students). If you do decide to have students work together in small groups, there are some considerations to keep in mind.

  • Provide students with thorough written instructions (these can be projected on a slide) for any group task you ask them to do. Because you and they will be masked, verbal instructions alone may create the potential for confusion.
  • Be sure to structure group tasks very carefully so that students know what the outcome of their work together should be.
  • Space groups out in the classroom as much as possible. Because students will be masked, it may be difficult for them to hear student within their groups over other classroom noise.
  • When you debrief and discuss a group task, be sure to repeat student comments so that all can hear. Even in a smaller classroom, it will likely to be difficult for students to hear others from a distance.

What can I do about food and drink in the classroom?

Instructors are allowed to drink from water bottles while teaching, but other food and drink are prohibited in classroom for safety reasons. This can be a concern, especially for instructors who teach longer classes. If your class meets for a period longer than an hour and 20 minutes, schedule breaks for students so that they can leave the classroom and have a drink, eat a snack, use the bathroom, etc. These kinds of breaks are a good idea in a longer class as research suggests that any kind of movement or break will help students cognitively.

Are there other safe ways to engage students during class time?

If you feel that having students work in small groups creates undue risk or if students express concerns to you, but you still want to be sure that students are actively engaged in their own learning during class time, there are other strategies you can use.

  • If students have mobile devices with them in class, you can use a free polling tool like PollEverywhere or Kahoot! to capture their individual thinking and begin whole-class discussions.
  • If students have mobile devices with them in class, you can have them complete short journals or assignments in Blackboard that will help you see how their thinking is developing.
  • If you want students to interact with each other but don’t feel comfortable having them work in small groups during class, you can put them into small groups in Blackboard and have them engage in discussions in that space. Discussion forums don’t have the immediacy of face-to-face conversations, but this does give students an opportunity to get to know other students.

How do I encourage students to stay home if they are feeling sick in ways that don’t tempt them to abuse that policy?

It is important that students understand that if they have any symptoms of illness, they should self-isolate until they can consult with a medical provider. You may feel concerned that students might take advantage of this situation and skip class meetings, but keep in mind that anxiety and worries about the pandemic may also be at play. Rather than police student attendance, you can help students navigate the situation with language that helps them balance their desire to keep themselves (and others) healthy with their desire to succeed in your course. Here’s an example of a statement you can put in your syllabus and discuss in class:

The work we do in class this semester is important. You will be analyzing and solving problems with your classmates regularly. This in-class work allows you to share and workshop ideas as well as get immediate feedback from me on your progress. While this in-class work is a key part of your learning, missing this in-class work might be unavoidable in the case of illness or emergency. If you are sick, please stay home and contact your healthcare provider. In the case that missing class is unavoidable, I will arrange for you to do the in-class activity individually as a written assignment, but please note that it will involve more work for you and work that will not result in as much learning as the in-class version. Your best route to success and learning is to attend all classes unless you feel unwell.

What are the resources available to help me as I return to the classroom?