Like many other workers in the United States who returned to a physical workplace after spending more than a year working remotely, I faced a variety of pandemic-related guidelines. The subway system I use to commute to work required that I and other passengers wear masks upon entering the subway stations and while riding the subway. The city where my job is located had mask protocols in place for large gatherings. My employer required me to wear a mask whenever I was not alone in my office on campus and to test weekly to make sure I hadn’t been infected with any of the COVID-19 variants.
While the subway maintains its mask mandate, my employer has shifted the policy. We are still required to test weekly, but the wearing of masks while we teach is now optional. In other words, it is now up to me to decide if I want to wear a mask while I am in the classroom. The same is true for my colleagues and for our students.
The key word for me in the new policy is “optional.” That does not mean I am obligated not to wear a mask. It also does not mean I should belittle anyone else at work for whatever choice they make about mask-wearing. I have the responsibility to make certain that students in my classroom do not feel pressured to remove their masks nor to feel uncomfortable wearing them if they choose to do so.
In early March, when students filed in behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a political event, he had an opportunity to make the difference between a mandate and a choice clear. But as the students filed in behind him, DeSantis said: “You do not have to wear those masks. Please take them off. Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this COVID theater.” Most of the students began to remove their masks. When a sitting governor chides you to do so and your fellow students comply, there’s certainly a pressure to comply.
To be fair to DeSantis, he continued, “So if you want to wear it, fine.” But he quickly added, “But this is ridiculous.”
All the words DeSantis needed to make a clear statement about individual choice were among those he used. If he had simply said, “If you want to wear it, fine, but you do not have to wear those masks” and left it at that, it would have sent a far different message than the one he sent (though he still likely would have risked the wrath of the children’s parents who might have liked to have been consulted).
People in a position of power and leadership have a responsibility to use that power wisely and for the good of the people they lead. Belittling is neither sound policy nor leadership. Neither is it an effective way to teach.
As we begin to return to some sense of normalcy, the right thing is to show respect for others’ choices. I will work hard to make my students feel comfortable in their decisions about wearing a mask in the classroom. How I teach has nothing to do with whether they wear a mask. I may, however, still chide them about showing up late to class.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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