End of Mask Mandate at UMass Amherst

Earlier this week, the faculty, staff, and students at UMass, received notification about the end of the indoor mask mandate. I am not here to discuss the validity of this decision; frankly as I am not a epidemiologist or related scientist, I do not feel qualified to make such a decision. What I think is important is that this moment had to come, and no matter when it came, there was going to be a subset of the population who would not be ready. Moreover, I do not feel it is my role to comment on folks’ motivations for not being ready: their reasons are their own. What I want to reflect on is the more practical: this happened, what can we, as instructors do about it?

Here is what I did, there is no claim that this was the best course of action, but I figured I would share in case it helps others. If someone reading this has my email and would like to provide feedback, I welcome it.

My goal is for as many students in my class to be as comfortable as possible – not an easy task in a room of 300 people. What I said was (working from memory),

“I want y’all to know that I found out at the same time as you did – I was not keeping information about the relaxation of the mask mandate from you. Moreover, I am not a epidemiologist or public health professional. I am trained as a particle physicist. Thus, I do not really feel qualified to have an opinion on whether this is the right decision at this time or not.

Regardless, this is the state we are in. My goal is for as many folks in this class to be as comfortable as possible. If you are not ready to not wear a mask in here, I will support you. If you want to take yours off, there are experts who suggest that is a reasonable thing to do. As part of making as many people comfortable working with me as possible, I will continue to wear one in class.

If you would like to move to a remote mode of delivery for this class, that is an option for you. Even if you signed up to have an attendance commitment, I am perfectly willing to remove this for you under these circumstances. Just let me know.

I have also decided that I will use the upcoming spring break to incorporate a synchronous remote option for students who are not comfortable in a large lecture hall under the new circumstances. I have been playing with this idea, but these new circumstances have forced the issue. I will make notes here going forward about how I accomplished this and how it goes.

A Review of Mask Types for Sound Quality

The University of Massachusetts Amherst has instituted a mask mandate for the start of the Fall 2021 Semester. The mandate goes into effect today (August 11th) and will be reviewed in mid-September. During this mandate, masks will be required in all public indoor spaces which includes faculty members who are actively teaching. Making sure that you are clear in speech is critical, particularly in large lecture halls. To that end, Heath Hatch and I did some tests on various types of masks. I am posting the results here for folks’ reference.

Overview of the Mask Types

Mask #1: A Simple Cloth Mask

This is a simple cloth mask. I like these for simple around-town use as I find them comfortable and, due to their crush-ability, easy to carry around.

Video overview of the simple cloth mask.


  • Comfortable (at least for me).
  • Easy to breathe.
  • Easy to wash.


  • Falls off your face when talking!
  • Some people find the closeness to the face uncomfortable.
  • Only one layer of fabric.

Mask #2: A More Elaborate Cloth Mask

This mask has two thinner layers and a metal piece for the nose.

An overview of the more sophisticated cloth mask.


  • Stays on face while lecturing.
  • Comfortable.
  • Easy to breathe.
  • Multiple fabric layers.


None really.

Mask #3: A Cone-Style KN95

This is cone-shaped KN95 mask. The particular brand (no brand endorsement implied) is Bio-th which was permitted under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization.

Overview of cone-style KN95.


  • Stays on face while lecturing.
  • Stays away from face while talking, making articulation easier.
  • Easy to breathe.
  • Tight seal.
  • Kn95 by FDA EUA.
  • Folding makes it easy to carry.


  • The tight seal makes it a bit of a jaw workout to talk. Your jaw will be tired by the end of the day at first.

Review of Sound Quality

A large lecture hall that provides the teaching environment for P132

We tested the masks in the empty Hasbrouck 20 lecture hall. The lecture hall has a concrete roof and floor with brick walls and hard-plastic chairs resulting in a lot of echo. Given that the room was empty, we are not sure that the results will be representative when the room is full, but we cannot find that out until the students come back!

The sound checks for the different mask styles.

Summary and Recommendation

My Pick: Mask #3 – A Cone-Style KN95

This particular mask was the overall winner. The mask stayed on while speaking and the cone shape resulted in the clearest voice while using a microphone in the empty Hasbrouck 20.

Mask #1, the simple cloth mask kept slipping off the nose while talking and Mask #2, the more sophisticated cloth mask, had noticeably muffled sound quality.

Future work and mask equity

The opacity of the mask results in students obtaining less information because they cannot see the instructor’s lips. This is particularly true for Deaf and other students with hearing difficulties. I plan to try a mask with a clear window in the future to see if this feature works and its impact on sound quality.

Lab groups and peer evaluations

This past year, I have been working to develop a series of labs that focus on scientific skills, as opposed to teaching physics content. These changes are motivated in part by the pandemic: I want to have authentic laboratory experiences that students can complete at home with limited resources. However, these reforms are also motivated by the literature which suggests that lab is better suited to the teaching of such skills as opposed to content:

  • Holmes, Natasha G., and Carl E. Wieman. “Introductory Physics Labs: We Can Do Better.” Physics Today 71, no. 1 (January 1, 2018): 38–45. https://doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.3816.
  • MacIsaac, Dan. “Report: AAPT Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Curriculum.” The Physics Teacher 53, no. 4 (April 1, 2015): 253–253. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.4914580.

Lab groups are one of the necessities of such a large class. In order to respect the TA’s time and keep the grading load manageable, students must turn in reports as groups. Fortunately, I also think that learning to work in a scientific team is also an important goal of the lab experience.

This past semester, I have been trying to use Moodle to manage the lab groups and CATME to do peer evaluations. However, this has yielded two problems:

  1. The TAs must keep the lists in Moodle up to date and there is an unclear chain of command with regards to group management. Also, this requires a rather sophisticated understanding of Moodle and makes changing/managing groups difficult.
  2. The CATME protocol, while fantastic, is, I think, insufficiently transparent. Moreover, I must manage it. This is, frankly, too much load for me. I need a system that the TAs can successfully manage on their own.

I really like the multiplicative nature of the CATME results. A plan with which I am currently toying involves:

  • Have a number of points equal to the number of members in the team.
  • Each team member would distribute these points to their team members. Perhaps this would be done for a few different categories.
  • There would also be one optional point that could be given to someone who really deserves an extra boost. This would be a bonus: if everyone in the team neglects to do it, they will still all get ones (i.e. their score would be equal to their actual grade).
  • The result would be scaled in such a way that the final multipliers are between 0.7 or so and 1.05.

Obviously, this needs to be flushed out, but there are some key points for improvement here.

Fishbone Root Cause Analysis Protocol

This document from the Minnesota Department of Education describes this interesting protocol which describes a procedure for really determining the fundamental causes of a problem (such as student struggle) under the assumption that treating the cause (as best as possible) is more effective than treating just the symptoms. The basic idea is to work to you find a “significant cause that can, in fact, be changed.”

I find this to be an interesting perspective to share when we consider the myriad of unique challenges that our students are facing during this time of COVID-19.

Reflecting on Remote Physics 132

I know the blog has been quiet lately. Like so many others, I have been learning how to juggle everything in this new reality. What time I have found to share with others online has been spent on the page of remote teaching resources I have been curating.

Well, now the semester has finished and I am doing my usual reflecting on how it went and what I can do better for the next round of remote learning in the Spring 2021 semester. A lot happened, so the thoughts are long, but here they are.

Continue reading “Reflecting on Remote Physics 132”