How to ensure students wear their masks in classrooms

With secondary students now required to wear masks in class, Callum Jacobs looks at ways to ensure they follow the rules

Callum Jacobs

Student fixes her face mask while looking in the mirror

Following the recent announcement that all students in secondary schools will be required to wear mask in classrooms, as well as in communal areas of schools, teachers will already be wondering just how easy this will be to manage. 

The challenge will be in the practicalities – of students having their mouths covered when we might want to hear what they have to say – but also in the recognition that not all students will be keen to comply with the new rule. It’s fair to say that young people in a school setting are not always sticklers for rules, and for some students, the mere existence of a rule is reason enough to try and flout it. 

Teachers will have already seen a reluctance to wear masks among certain sections of the student body, so we know this new ruling is going to present some difficulties. Luckily, teachers are the stone-cold experts in getting children to do things they may not want to do, and should be able to apply their classroom-management techniques to this new problem. 

Schools reopening: How to ensure pupils wear their face masks

Here then are some suggestions for teachers soon to be faced with one more unpopular rule to enforce.

1. Learning objectives

The idea of telling students what they’re about to learn and why is a strategy that all teachers will be familiar with. The first step in getting a classful of reluctant adolescents to wear masks is to appeal to their good nature. 

If students understand the reasons behind the rule, they’re more likely to comply. Schools should provide all returning students with a clear explanation about why they should wear masks. 

We’ve learned much from the government’s regular press briefings over the past year, so lead with the science, but keep the flashy multicoloured graphs to a minimum. And keep Michael Gove out of it.

2. Give clear instructions

It might seem obvious to most people what the "wear a mask in the classroom" rule means, but to assume this would be a mistake. As previously mentioned, some students like to be difficult just for fun, and will inevitably look for loopholes. 

Schools will need to make it clear what counts and what doesn’t. For example, a mask hung rakishly from one ear or worn below the chin, while, yes, technically qualifying as wearing a mask, does not count. 

As on public transport, an illustrated poster may be useful. The art department could be employed to knock up a quick diagram showing correct mask usage.

It will also be vital to be clear on exactly when and where masks are required. Think through the reasons that students might have for not wearing their masks, and prepare a response. Some will have genuine reasons to be exempt, of course. And some will just be trying to see what they can get away with. But many will quite reasonably find it uncomfortable to wear a mask all day long, and want a break. 

Have a clearly communicated procedure for what they have to do if they want to sneeze, for example. Have an answer for the students who complain that the mask’s straps get tangled with their headphones, or that constant breathing on yourself gives you acne. Clear, irrefutable instructions will be essential.

3. Explain the rules multiple times

One thing you learn early on in the teaching game is that children don’t listen. Occasionally on purpose, often because they lack concentration, frequently because something else more interesting is happening somewhere else in the room. 

So, as with any lesson instructions, the message about masks needs to get to students in multiple formats. Tell them verbally, have it written in giant letters on the whiteboard and on posters, repeat it frequently. Even after all this, some will still claim to know nothing about it.

4. Put staff on corridor patrol

Forced to wear masks in classrooms, some students will now immediately remove them once they leave the lesson. Unfortunately, there is no other option but to have staff stationed in the corridor at all lesson changeovers. 

Before Christmas, I saw one school that did this to enforce mask-wearing in communal areas. It’s the only school where students actually all wore masks when they were supposed to. 

5. Model good practice

Staff all need to follow the rules 100 per cent of the time. The first sign of a teacher not wearing a mask will immediately be leapt on: “But, Sir, Miss X wasn’t wearing one earlier.”

6. Make it fun

Children (and many teachers) love a chance to dress up. How about a weekly prize for the funkiest mask or the mask made from the most creative material (while still complying with biosecurity regulations, of course)?

7. Make it easy 

Make masks freely available at the school office, the medical room, departmental offices, etc. And, crucially, instruct anyone responsible for handing them out to do it with good grace and without moaning at a student for not having one, even when it’s the fifth time this week they’ve forgotten it. 

8. Use praise, not punishment

Most teachers will tell you that positive reinforcement is more effective than shouting at students and putting them in detention. Go with, “That’s a lovely mask you’ve got there,” and less, “Put your bloody mask on, you virus-spreading disease vector.”

Callum Jacobs is a supply teacher in the UK

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