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Face-to-Face Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Some Practical Advice for Fall Classes

Students picnic in the warm sun at the Court of North Carolina as pleasant weather arrives for the spring 2021 semester.
Photo by Becky Kirkland.

NC State is back to face-to-face. What follows is what I’ve learned during the first week of classes (with a big thanks to my colleague Josie Torres Barth for some great tips based on her heroic hybrid teaching last year):

  1. Fog Gone, or some product like it, is a game-changer for glasses wearers like yours truly. I have struggled with my glasses fogging up over the past year-plus, and I could not have taught a class with fogged lenses. Applying this product with a soft cloth just prior to class resulted in zero steaming during a nearly two-hour class.
  2. I taught one class in an N-95 mask and another in a highly rated cloth mask, and the N-95 mask is much easier to project my voice through. It also feels less steamy and claustrophobic.
  3. If you are in a larger classroom, a lapel mic is a game-changer if your room technology allows for it. I have no idea how I could reach students in the back half of my large classroom without it. Pro tip: keep backup batteries on hand! My mic ran out of batteries halfway through my first class and there were no spare batteries in the room, so I had to put class on hold for five minutes while I searched for them in departmental offices.  
  4. I was tremendously anxious about the first day of class—about teaching in a mask, about students not being masked or not wearing masks properly, about students being able to participate in class while masked, and of course about the horrifically contagious delta variant. I felt much better as I left campus. On the first day of class, everyone came masked and their enthusiasm for being there made me feel much better about being there. They were engaged and eager to participate (I’d estimate that at least half of them made an observation or asked a question during our first class session). I felt like they were grateful to be in a room together. As skeptical as I am about face-to-face instruction lasting for the whole semester, or about the safety of face-to-face teaching without required vaccines and rigorous community testing at a time when breakthrough infections of the vaccinated are widespread, I’m glad to be getting this time with my students. I think it will make going online much easier, should that happen at some point. There really is no substitute for sharing knowledge and communicating in the real, physical world.

    Marsha Gordon stands on stage in front of a project screen reading information about her course.
    Marsha Gordon teaches her course on 21st Century Documentaries in-person. Her lectures are recorded with Panopto.
  5. On my second day of class, one student showed up and sat down without a mask on (I didn’t notice this student come in since I was too busy setting up my technology—plan for a little extra time for this). The student made it known to me that they had forgotten their mask. Fortunately, my department had provided us with disposable masks in case something like this happened, so I was grateful to have one on hand and I highly recommend that faculty have some spares with them. I was disappointed that a student would sit down in the midst of other students without a mask on instead of figuring out a way to fix the problem before walking into the room. The occurrence made me realize how easily this system can fail.
  6. I was initially wary of Panopto, the system that NC State has implemented to record class sessions (faculty can opt out; otherwise Panopto records automatically). But I realize now how useful—for me, absolutely essential—the system is to get through face-to-face teaching during this time. Because of my teaching style, I opt for the wide view on the in-class Panopto monitor before the start of class, which records me and the large classroom screen (you can zoom in and out to adjust the image to your liking via the touchpad controller). You can access the recording within hours after teaching (it takes a few hours to process and upload), do a quick and easy edit (for example, I clipped out my five-minute battery scramble from the first day and the after-class conversations I have with my students since the recording goes past the official end of class time), and then easily share a link with students who have missed the class. This makes it much easier for students to experience the class if they have had a COVID-19 exposure or have possible COVID-19 symptoms and are doing the right thing by staying away from the classroom and waiting for test results.
  7. The biggest flaw with classroom recordings is that the room doesn’t have student microphones so the system does not record what the students are saying (I am the only one with a microphone). Any student who misses class will therefore miss out on hearing student discussions. I try to repeat student comments for the sake of the recording, but I realize that could be irritating for those in the room so it is an imperfect part of an otherwise tremendously useful technology.
  8. In my first week of classes, I had five students out of 30 miss one or both class sessions as they awaited test results because of a known exposure or because they were sick. I was relieved that they notified me and stayed away from class, and hope that their diligence continues.  

Stay safe everyone!