Masks in the classroom

Masks in the classroom

On August 31 I started my 20th year of teaching at Hamline University. This year is unlike all the previous ones; Covid-19 has changed our lives and that includes academia.

My home state of Minnesota has been doing better than many other states the last few months, but the coronavirus has taken its toll. The state has half the population of Greece but about 2,000 Covid deaths and over 92,000 individuals have tested positive. My employer gave faculty several choices; we could teach online, face-to-face, or a combination of the two (hybrid). I chose to teach face-to-face. My decision was taken after careful deliberation on the important issues involved.

I am well aware of the dangers, but I decided based on two considerations: First, while many of my colleagues do an exceptionally good job teaching online, I discovered last spring, when the whole university taught online, that I am not one of them. I think that I would be short-changing my students if I chose another way to teach. I also noted last semester that students missed the classroom atmosphere and became less attentive.

My other consideration has to do with the example of my spouse. She is a healthcare worker and has been working her usual shifts since the Covid pandemic started. Her department deals with people who face a number of health issues, including those who are Covid positive or are in the process of testing to find out. Hospital employees wear special protective gear only when a patient is Covid positive but in all other cases they follow the rules indicated by doctors (masks for all, keeping a distance when possible etc). It seems to me then that I can follow similar rules in my work. Hamline University provided all of us with masks, imposed strict rules on social distance etc – common sense rules that have worked in other similar cases all over the world.

As of now my teaching is going well for both myself and my students. To be sure, I do not enjoy lecturing with a mask, nevertheless it is working. Actually I used the opportunity of Covid to talk to my students and even read them the passage from Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War” where he describes events surrounding the plague in ancient Athens and how the reaction of the people then compares with today. Knowing well the debate that has started in Greece about the so-called negative effects of wearing a mask, a debate that is going on here as well, I would like to give readers a report based on my experience. I have not fainted or felt light-headed due to the mask (if at times I am incoherent that is how I always have been, as generations of former students will attest). I have not felt shortness of breath or any other malady due to the mask. 

I understand that besides medical issues some claim social problems due to the mask. I am here to testify that even though I wear a mask my students do understand me (the fact that they don’t laugh at my jokes is due to the fact that I am not as funny as I think I am). While my mouth is covered, I can still communicate happiness or displeasure by means of fascial expressions.

Finally, the idea that by ordering us to wear masks the powers that be are muzzling us is not accurate. I am sure that my boss, the dean of the college, can attest that I am still speaking my mind, questioning her policies at every turn! In short, there are many problems we all have to face and difficulties we have to overcome. Wearing masks is not one of them.

John A. Mazis is a history professor at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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