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Quick-Start Tips for Teaching in the Time of COVID-19

The University of Tennessee recommends that instructors and students wear masks and remain at least 6 feet apart when in the classroom (see the UT guidelines for social distancing and the slides and a recorded version of the Provost’s Instruction & COVID-19 Seminar). As many instructors have observed, this arrangement, especially when combined with the challenges we have all faced during the past year, has the potential to make classroom teaching difficult. This tip sheet is intended to provide some strategies for dealing with those challenges, for those who are returning to in-person settings in some form, and should be considered a work in progress (to date, we do not have evidence-based practices for this novel situation). It is based on three foundational facts of the present situation:

  • Students will be under a variety of stresses (see Clark’s editorial, “A Day in the Life”)
  • Faculty members will also be under a range of stresses (see Paradis’s faculty version of the COVID editorial)
  • Social distancing will constrain communication and interaction when in the classroom

This tip sheet is also a work in progress, so we would like to hear from you! If in the course of the fall 2020 semester you have implemented a process, technology, techniques, or format that has been particularly successful, please us the form below to tell us about it, so that we can add it to this tip sheet.


OIT has made available a website devoted to classroom spaces and technology, so that faculty members can preview the spaces and available support.  Check out the Classroom Technology Resource, and the recent information on available resources presented at New Faculty Orientation, and if possible, visit your classroom before classes begin.  It’s worth keeping in mind that masks will make it more difficult for everyone to be understood (see further information from McLoon and Berke), so classrooms have been updated with microphones and speaker systems.  Here are a few more useful resources to prepare for the classroom experience:

Based on your available classroom space, you will probably want to review your syllabus and provide up to date information on COVID-19 countermeasures in place on campus.

Review the UT guidelines for social distancing and UT COVID-19 classroom plans, as well as the Return to Classroom training, and the Provost’s Office’s Instructor Responsibilities page, and consider how to update your syllabus, and how you plan to use your space. If you teach in a laboratory context, UT has also released guidance about health safety planning for instructional labs. To help reduce stress, use Canvas or UT email to check in with students a week before the first day, and inform them about risk-management strategies you will be using. Consider addressing:

  • How/where/when will you remind students to bring/use masks? NOTE: The Provost’s Office has provided a document containing sample language on physical distancing and mask use for your syllabus
  • How will students be expected to enter and leave the classroom?
  • How will you use physical distancing during class? NOTE: The Provost’s Office has provided instructions for announcing distancing procedures, and for creating a seating chart
  • How will furniture be placed and cleaned? (Note that we are being asked not to move furniture from where it has been placed by Facilities Services)
  • How will daily classroom activities be modified? (See below!)
  • Also, it may be useful to ask students what digital devices they have, so you can plan ahead for activities. Not all students might have smartphones, laptops, or tablets, or peripherals like headphones, and many may have one kind of hardware but not another.

For additional guidelines on higher education practices, see UT’s advice on best practices in the classroom, the CDC guidance for institutions of higher education, and the State of Tennessee’s guidance, and the Provost’s Office Instructor Responsibilities page.

Just as in-class activities will take a little more planning and preparation, the pandemic will also make special activities more challenging. If your course centers around student engagement with the community (e.g. in service learning or related experiential learning), or if you plan to invite visitors to campus, UT has provided resources worth reviewing (this information is current as of June 25, and will be updated as needed):

  • Experiential learning during COVID: Students and community partners will need to take extra precautions to minimize the risks of contracting or spreading the coronavirus.
  • Visitors to campus and special events: The UT administration has asked us to take additional precautions when inviting visitors to campus, to minimize risks.


As we all know, the return to in-person classes cannot be “business as usual.” It may be worthwhile to:

  • Devote class time, during the first week, to acknowledging the challenges and inviting questions —and don’t forget to consult the Provost’s Office’s instructions on creating an announcing a seating chart
  • Model the required mitigation behavior (e.g. wearing a mask) even if you are personally unsure about how much each element will help (for more guidance, see UT’s resources for the classroom and for instructional labs).
  • Collaborate with students to create a shared commitment to make the best of the situation
  • Put this shared commitment in a prominent place on your Canvas site, as a daily reminder to all

In addition to constraining communication, masks and social distancing can make environments seem cold and can make people seem more threatening or dehumanized. Furthermore, as outlined by McLoon and Berke in an Inside Higher Ed article, communicating in these circumstances takes more energy, and may wear us all down more quickly. Consider working against this:

  • Establish and maintain eye contact more than usual
  • Use more exaggerated verbal and physical cues than usual, since students cannot see your whole face
  • Allot more class time than usual to reconnect regularly with students’ perceptions, situations, and needs
  • Allow more frequent breaks or shifts in activity than usual, to allow students and yourself to recharge a little

Particularly as classes begin, students may experience stress, and may express it in unproductive ways. Consider building extra time in the first two weeks to restate expectations and manage aspects of the course that your students often find challenging. In preparation:

Prepare for stress

Respond effectively

  • In the event that students do not comply with safety measures, the Provost’s office asks that instructors give students the benefit of the doubt, and allow them to change their approach or leave the classroom to retrieve protective equipment. If students repeatedly arrive at class without appropriate protective equipment, instructors are advised to file a report with SCCS.
  • The Provost’s Office also has links explaining what happens when a COVID-19 case is reported, and what instructors should do if they feel sick.
  • The Academic Success Center has provided a guide to Recognizing a Disengaged Scholar, to help instructors catch student difficulties early.
  • Don’t forget to monitor your own stress level! The College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences has made available Resources and Support for managing health, caregiving, teaching at home, and living and working in an online context.
  • Human Resources has also offered a downloadable Personal and Professional Resources PDF with information about childcare, elder care, and other support options offered via HR.

Be available, be flexible

  • In a Chancellor’s recent COVID-19 update, Provost Zomchick made new recommendations to help students manage the very stressful fall 2020 semester:
    • Be accessible and responsive to students, including holding virtual office hours, and maintaining communication.
    • Be forgiving regarding absences, and do not require students to offer medical proof in order to excuse an absence.
    • Be flexible on work missed during absences – students living on campus may be asked to move to a different dorm room even if they themselves do not need to self-isolate or quarantine (i.e., even if there is no medical reason) – so we should allow students to make up missed work in whatever way seems appropriate.

For courses that make extensive use of group work, it may take some trial and error to figure out how best to manage. We recommend treating the first week or two as a serial evaluation period, collaborating with students to decide which works best. These additional guides, Active Learning in the Physically-Distanced Classroom and Four Group Activities, will help you:

  • Determine what activities you plan to use, and how close together they put students
  • Determine what technologies you might want to deploy for these activities
  • Draw up a timetable to test-drive each during the first two weeks
  • Decide how to judge success for your own purposes (e.g. student outcomes)
  • Develop a quick evaluation poll or survey to elicit student responses
  • Also, don’t forget to establish your seating chart during the first few weeks, as detailed in the instructions from the Provost’s Office.

Throughout the semester, it will be worthwhile to keep an eye on your own health and stress level, and on the regularly updated information about UT’s current COVID-19 status.

  • UT’s primary COVID-19 website has an array information about campus operations and teaching arrangements.
  • The College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences has made available Resources and Support for managing health, caregiving, teaching at home, and living and working in an online context.
  • The Chancellor’s Office is offering updates on UT’s current situation
  • The central UT COVID-19 site’s page on data monitoring has live data (updated 5 times a week, Monday through Friday), including:
    • Daily count of active COVID cases
    • Daily count of self-isolation
    • Daily proportion of reasons for self-isolation
    • Rooms recently cleaned due to COVID cases (Note: Rooms identified for cleaning will be closed for cleaning, but will reopen rapidly, often within an hour, so “current” room closures are not available.)
  • You can also find live updates on what institutions of higher education are doing nationally via the Chronicle of Higher Education’s live updates page

As the fall 2020 semester unfolds, we want to hear from you!  Have you deployed a particularly effective group activity or innovative technology in your classroom?  Are you using an innovative mode for classroom interactions? We want to hear about it, so that we can design new resources and recommendations for your colleagues!  Tell us about your experiences by completing the form below: