Anxiety isn’t an uncommon back to school emotion, but this year, the stakes feel entirely different. As an educator, you’re balancing student nerves, the frustrations of your colleagues, and the demands of administration—not to mention not only your own health, but potentially the health of your family, too.

There are no easy answers, especially when it seems like the sands are shifting daily. Educators deserve more support than any listicle can offer. Still, in the absence of clarity, we’ve put together some thoughts on how to ease into this school year feeling, at the very least, a bit more prepared for what’s to come.

Best masks for teachers

If you’re teaching in a mask (and experts recommend you should, even if vaccinated), experiment with a few options to figure out what works best for you. Our top tip: Have at least two masks on hand, and switch after each class, or even midway through a longer lecture—you’ll be way more comfortable in a fresh one.

  1. If you’re teaching in a classroom where masks are not mandated for students and where vaccination rates are low, opt for a N95 or KN95 mask. We trust the Wirecutter reviews, which also link to authorized sellers (counterfeit retailers abound). One of their recommendations, the Powecom, has been lauded by professors as being more comfortable than other N95s, while other educators prefer the “duckbill” shape of the N95 pouch masks, since these leave more space for movement while still creating a tight seal (especially important if you wear glasses).
  2. The AirQueen nanofilter mask comes highly rated by professors; it’s a solid alternative to a N95, lighter and more comfortable than most heavy-duty options, but still more protective than a cloth mask.  
  3. In larger spaces with fewer students and good ventilation, a cloth mask may be sufficient. Check out the Professor subreddit for recommendations: educators there rate Old Navy, Jannuu, and Happy Masks highly.
  4. If you’re teaching multiple classes a day, disposable surgical masks may be easiest. Ask your administrator to order them in bulk, and keep extras in class in case students forget their own.
  5. Reading lips? If you teach classes where it’s important for students to be able to see your mouth (ESL, theatre, voice, classes with students who are hard of hearing), try a clear mask—the CDC says these are an acceptable alternative to medical-grade masks.

Adjusting your expectations

  1. We may have had nearly two years of practice, but it’s still a struggle to read emotions when faces are obscured by masks. This can make it difficult to connect with students, especially in large lectures, which can have a negative impact on confidence. Create moments for feedback: Ask students often if they have questions, stop to check in, call on individual students with more frequency, and consider an online feedback component to get a sense of how students are faring. And remember that students are also struggling—what you’re reading as disinterest might really be their own fears and frustrations.
  2. Encourage more small group discussion to give yourself breaks from masked lecturing, or simply set a timer for a break halfway through class (yes, even shorter classes) to allow yourself to go to the restroom, drink some water, and possibly switch out your mask.
  3. Teaching in a large lecture hall or simply struggling with muffled speech? Ask your IT department for a microphone rather than straining your voice. Alternatively, a face bracket worn under your mask can provide some more breathing room, and scientists say they shouldn’t degrade protection as long as your mask still creates a tight seal.

Staying healthy in a COVID-19 classroom

  1. Take steps to mitigate anxiety in the classroom by rearranging seats when possible to allow for distancing, opening windows or doors for ventilation.
  2. Recent research suggests that portable air quality monitors that measure the level of CO2 in a space can be used as a proxy for COVID-19 transmission risk. If you’re looking for concrete information to provide to your school if you want to apply for dispensation for a different classroom, outdoor classes, or even switching to online teaching, this might be a good option. Here are some top picks.
  3. Know you aren’t alone. Your colleagues are likely struggling too, so make time for off-campus socializing. Lean on those relationships—they can also be valuable for creating meaningful change. Faculty unions have campaigned across the country for workload adjustments and extra pay due to COVID-19 and its attendant challenges.

Finally, know your rights. If you feel your institution is creating an unsafe environment for you or your students, start by speaking to your chair or department head. If they are unable to accommodate you, file an official request with HR. Make sure to outline the reasons for your request (this is a great resource for how faculty should document the impact of COVID-19 on their work) as well as any conditions that put you at higher risk. If your institution is unable or unwilling to reasonably assure your safety, ask your HR department for information on disability and FMLA leave.