Keep Your Classroom Safe: Tips to Increase Mask Usage When Masks aren’t Required 

Keep Your Classroom Safe: Tips to Increase Mask Usage When Masks aren’t Required 

By Nicole Gravina, PhD and Jessica Nastasi, MA, BCBA

The data are clear. Masks are one useful tool for reducing the spread of COVID, especially when they are worn by all members of a group in close contact (Chu et al., 2020). While many universities are requiring students, faculty, and staff to wear masks indoors on campus this fall, including the California University System, University of Michigan, and University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, others are only encouraging (or “expecting”) it.  

This leaves faculty and instructors in a precarious situation. Some faculty, staff, and students are at elevated risk for severe disease or live with high-risk individuals or children who are not eligible to be vaccinated. Others want to follow public health measures to reduce the burden on local healthcare systems, employers, and schools. For these and other reasons, many instructors hope that everyone in their classroom with wear their masks.  

Furthermore, we want to acknowledge that a lack of mask mandates exacerbates inequalities in classrooms and research labs. Students will likely be less compliant with mask expectations based on the instructor’s gender, race, ethnicity, and status. Higher education institutions might reconsider the mask mandate, with these issues in mind. However, when a mask mandate is not in place, instructors might find the suggestions below helpful. 

1. Education 

Depending on a person’s community, it’s possible they’ve been exposed to misinformation or little information regarding the importance of mask wearing. In fact, misinformation is one of the most common reasons for nonadherence (Cintulova et al., 2021). As an instructor you could add a summary of data-based reasons why we should wear masks (like this one) or an informative video ( to an email or make them readily available on your course page. You might also include specific information on the importance of mask wearing even after being vaccinated (video example). A more accessible option for students might involve offering to have a conversation with those who are reluctant to wear a mask. A discussion would allow opportunities for students to ask questions and share concerns, while instructors can reinforce inquiry and address potential misconceptions without compromising psychological safety.   

2. Make it easy 

Research on human behavior clearly shows that people are more likely to engage is responses when they are easy (Wilder et al., 2020). We can keep effort low by making masks available at the entry door of our classrooms, labs, offices, and other workspaces, along with hand sanitizer. Or you could hand a mask to any students who are not wearing one at the start of class. Another way to reduce response effort, albeit it might be significant effort for you, is to offer classes and office hours as hyflex. If students have an option to attend class and office hours remotely without a mask, they might choose it. Hyflex has the added benefit of allowing students who are quarantined to participate in class, and it can improve social distancing in the classroom.

3. Signage and Prompts 

Signs and prompts have been used to encourage a variety of safety and other behaviors and have minimal to modest effects on behavior (e.g., Austin et al., 2004; VanHouten, 1988). Email can be used to set expectations prior to class. Your university might have official signage that you can print and post on your classroom, lab, and office doors. One way to increase the effectiveness of signs is to use dynamic sign presentations (Warman et al., 2019), to improve salience. You could create a rotating slide deck encouraging mask use that the students will see as they enter the classroom. It could also include facts about local transmission rates.

4. Reinforce and Incentivize mask wearing 

Start class by thanking students who wear their mask. We know reinforcement increases and maintains responding, and so it is important to acknowledge those who are meeting expectations. If mask wearing is reinforced, it could produce more consistent adherence over time and allow for the consistent wearers to serve as a model for those who are more reluctant.

Incentivizing is not an option at our university but it might be at yours, so it is worth including. There are several ways instructors can incentivize mask wearing. For example, if students are 90% or 100% compliant, you can add an extra credit question to the exam or allow them to skip one question. You could also include in-class activities only if everyone is wearing a mask, to break up lecture. If you are concerned incentivizing mask wearing will not be acceptable at your university, you could try designing a research study and getting institutional review board approval for it.

Final thought

It is also important to recognize that students come from a variety of backgrounds in which mask wearing may be less likely to be reinforced or even punished. In those instances, a combination of education (i.e., opportunities for information sharing and discussion) and reinforcement (e.g., “I know you’re still not completely sold on wearing masks, but it means a lot that you are in my class”) may be most effective.  


Austin, J., Hackett, S., Gravina, N., & Lebbon, A. (2006). The effects of prompting and  feedback on drivers’ stopping at stop signs. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39(1) 117-121.  

Chu, D. K., Akl, E. A., Duda, S., Solo, K., Yaacoub, S., Schünemann, H. J., … & Reinap, M. (2020). Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The lancet, 395(10242), 1973-1987.

Cintulova, L. L., Rottermund, J., & Budayova, Z. (2021). Analysis of Motivation To Wear Face Masks in the SARS-COV-2 Pandemic Relevant Also For the Post-COVID Era. Acta Missiologica, 103-121. 

Van Houten, R. (1988). Prompts on pedestrian safety in a crosswalk on a multilane highway. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 21(3), 245-251.

Warman, A. S., Wine, B., Newcomb, E. T., Chen, T. & Morgan, C. A. (2019). An evaluation of static versus variable antecedents on employee performance.  Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 39(3-4), 257-265, 

Wilder, D. A., Ertel, H. M., & Cymbal, D. J. (2020). A review of recent research on the manipulation of response effort in applied behavior analysis. Behavior Modification. 0145445520908509