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An illustration of a teacher telling their student to fix their mask
Magazine

How to Tell Someone to Please Fix Their Mask

Sensitivity goes a long way, but don't be afraid to call for backup.

April 8, 2021

Paula Ann Solis

LA Johnson

Illustrator

This story is the second in a series of pieces answering questions about how to return to in-person learning and how to do schooling differently—and better—post-pandemic. To source the questions, we spoke with dozens of educators, caregivers, and students. We are grateful for their curiosity and, despite all, their optimism. 

From grocery aisles to public parks, masks—or their absence—have provoked numerous unpleasant exchanges. And with vaccine rates far short of herd immunity, there’s little wonder why people worry about mask compliance as students return steadily to in-person learning.

But it turns out grown-ups may not be giving kids enough credit. Most students want to wear masks at school, says Alan De Leon (Houston ’14), a health and physical education teacher at Houston middle school Raul Yzaguirre School for Success, where students returned to in-person learning in September. (He struggles more with getting virtual learners to leave cameras on during instruction.)

Still, De Leon occasionally encounters students, even peers, in need of gentle correction. In those instances, he takes a four-pronged approach:

Number one, De Leon says, find out why someone isn't wearing a mask in the first place. Those who wear glasses or have other health concerns sometimes need a reprieve from masks to read or communicate. Grace over strict enforcement is occasionally required, he says.

Number two, facts are your friend, so have them at the ready—like a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showing that masks can reduce virus transmission significantly when worn correctly.

Number three, keep the corrective friendly. De Leon says a lighthearted tone helps eliminate awkwardness, letting someone fix their mask without feeling embarrassed. His voice sounds playful when he says, "Hey man, you ain't gonna cover your nose?" It's about bringing the topic up casually, he says, instead of letting it go unchecked.

Lastly, use visuals. Posted signs all around De Leon's school campus show how to wear a mask properly. But the best visual is to mask well by example, he says. "We're still trying to protect ourselves. It's not over."

Jamecia Crenshaw-Jones (Houston ’14) is the dean of instruction and a member of the school wellness team at Worthing Early College High School in Houston. Like De Leon, she has been pleasantly surprised at students' willingness to mask up—even in Texas, where the mask mandate expired in March. Most students "are just as health-conscious as the adults are," she says.

Still, when there's a problem, her number one piece of advice for school administrators is to ensure that no one feels compelled to have the "please fix your mask" conversation alone. "I recommend to any educator in any type of leadership capacity, be it a school staff member, a teacher, an administrator, a school nurse, to let the people who we serve know that we are here to advocate for them," she says.