Cafeterias are the latest headache for schools navigating the pandemic

Just weeks into the school year, several have already revised their lunchtime protocols — many after sending classes home to quarantine. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung

When Tim O’Leary’s two elementary-aged daughters returned from their first days at Ripton Elementary this fall, they described lunchtime “like it was February of 2020,” O’Leary said.

“They had no plan,” he said of school leaders.

After getting an earful from parents, the school pivoted. The small elementary, whose enrollment hovers under 50, split students into two groups: One now eats in a cafeteria, the other in a classroom. 

“I think it is an example of how we started the year thinking that things might be more back to normal than we could actually carry out,” Ripton Principal Tracey Harrington said. “Things evolved so quickly in August and September.”

Largely shuttered last year, cafeterias are back in use in schools across Vermont. At a time when the state is still recording case counts that rival last winter’s surge, that fact has been jarring for many students, parents and educators.

What to do about lunch has emerged as one of the school year’s biggest headaches, and just weeks into the year, several schools have already revised their protocols. Some, like Ripton, are doing so as anxious parents clamor for more mitigation measures. Others are doing so as cases send entire grades home to quarantine.

Some experts say lunchtime, once a mundane daily ritual, is essentially the most high-risk activity taking place at school as students enter their third pandemic school year.

“It doesn’t matter what you do in the classroom if you ignore what’s happening in the lunchroom,” Yves Dubief, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Vermont who studies the flow of aerosols and Covid-19, wrote in a recent commentary for VTDigger. 

Of course, students cannot wear masks when they’re eating, but there are other concerns, too. Talking — and particularly talking loudly, as one often does to be heard above the din in a crowded lunch hall — generates far more aerosols than simply breathing, Dubief said in a follow-up interview.

The greatest periods of risk are when groups of unmasked people gather indoors, according to Benjamin Lee, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor of pediatrics at UVM’s Larner College of Medicine. Within the context of schools, he said, that means that lunchtime and snack time for younger kids “are the moments where we do need to exercise the greatest caution.”

Both Lee and Dubief emphasized tried-and-true mitigation measures that have become staples of the Covid-19 response: ventilation, distancing and, wherever possible and as long as the weather allows, eating outdoors.

Lee also stressed urging students to put their masks back on as soon as they finished eating and drinking, although more than one educator has flagged the difficulty of policing such behavior in practice.

The Vermont Agency of Education recommends Vermont schools follow the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on school meals. The feds say schools should maximize distancing “as much as possible” during meal times, including by spreading students out by sending them outside or letting them eat in alternative spaces such as the gym. They also recommended improving ventilation. 

But like all of the state’s Covid-19 school guidance this year, it is nonbinding. Secretary of Education Dan French’s brief email advisory about it came out about a week before school started in many districts — well after many districts had already established their schedules and plans.

With no hard-and-fast rules set by the state — and different logistic considerations at play in each locale — school districts have carved out their own paths.

Sometimes, those paths have shifted. Officials at Williston Schools announced last week they would assign seats at lunch after several classes switched to remote learning. After four cases in four days, Derby Elementary de-densified the cafeteria by having some students eat in classrooms.

At Champlain Valley Union High, Principal Adam Bunting said Friday that lunch has been a challenge, and the school had already made changes since the first day back. A 2,400-square-foot tent has been erected outside to encourage students to eat in the open air, and some classrooms have been opened to students who feel uncomfortable dining in the cafeteria. Folding chairs are available to accommodate most students who want to space out, but some are still eating on the floor to get away from their peers, Bunting said.

Many are proactively keeping in place many of the mitigation measures put in place last year. Several administrators reported delivering meals to classrooms, just as they did last year, especially in the younger grades. Others, as at CVU, are pitching tents or using the outdoor classrooms built last year. 

But with all students back in person, five days a week, many administrators said they have no choice but to feed kids in one centralized location.

O’Leary, the Ripton parent, called it “mind-boggling” that kids there are not eating outside. Harrington said she does not think it is necessary to keep kids safe and that many students do not like eating outdoors.

But even if schools want to send kids outside to eat, doing so in many places presents new operational challenges now that all students are back for five days of in-person instruction a week.

Finding tents and outdoor seating aside, schools must also supervise children and teens during the lunch hour. And like most employers, districts have reported widespread difficulty hiring.

In a message sent to the community earlier this month, Shelburne Community School co-Principal Scott Sivo addressed parent concerns about the safety of the cafeteria, pleading with them to understand the decision to re-open the space. An overhaul of the lunchroom’s air-handling system now makes the cafeteria “simply the newest and best-ventilated space in the school,” the administrator argued. 

Besides, he said, teachers were being forced to forgo their own lunches as they attempted to supervise more than 700 students — spread out between assorted classrooms and the outdoors — with limited staffing. The school has since raised an army of parent volunteers to sustain the outdoor eating option. 

In an interview, Sivo said he was grateful some 50 community members raised their hands to help supervise kids and that his district could afford to invest in state-of-the-art ventilation systems.

“I really feel for those who don’t have that same level of space or staffing or resources to make that happen. It’s a really challenging time, I know, for a lot of my colleagues around the state,” he said.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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