Lunchtime remains a vulnerable time for schools during the pandemic, but responses vary widely across the country, from no special precautions at all to more widespread social distancing and crowd limits in the cafeteria.
In a December survey of educators conducted by the EdWeek Research Center, 18 percent of respondents said their school was “not currently doing anything” to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at lunch. Among those that were, 50 percent of respondents said students are required to social distance in the cafeteria, and 47 percent said their school had reduced the number of students who could eat in the lunch room at a given time.
The online survey of 1,210 K-12 teachers and school and district administrators was conducted between Dec. 15 and Dec. 29, as the nation faced rapidly rising rates of COVID-19 infections from the omicron variant and school administrators began to prepare for a higher risk of interruptions and remote learning after winter break.
“Lunch is the most difficult time because the children are unmasked,” April Jacobsen, an elementary school principal in Simi Valley, Calif., said in an interview with Education Week.
As with other school COVID-19 policies, decisions about how students eat are driven by community receptiveness to strong precautions, state guidance, the physical capacity of school buildings, and the logistics of moving lunch times to reduce crowding, school leaders said. Among the biggest considerations is a challenge that has affected nearly every part of the school experience: a lack of adequate staffing.
The variety of approaches to school meal times reflects differences in how broader communities respond to the pandemic. For example, while some communities have mandated masks in stores and businesses, others have banned such requirements.
In an open-response portion of the survey, some respondents said they had not seen virus cases linked to their schools’ lunchrooms. Others reported having students sit in assigned seats so that possible exposures could be more easily traced if they test positive for COVID-19.
“We can’t do a true 6 feet of distance, but we try to keep 3 feet or 4 feet so that if one person gets sick, we have only have three or four people who are considered close contacts,” Jacobsen told Education Week.
But ensuring students are in the right seats and tracing any infections takes staff time, she said. The school moved from three to four lunch sessions this year to reduce crowding and allow students to sit further apart. Half of students eat in the school’s outdoor space, and staff members have to scramble to set up tables in an indoor multipurpose room on rainy days.
An additional lunch period means four extra staff members are needed to supervise students at a time when every part of the school is operating on tight margins, Jacobsen said. Schools around the country have experienced shortages of school bus drivers, substitute teachers, cafeteria workers, and nurses, which means principals like Jacobsen often slide in to take on extra duties.
“It has been all hands on deck all year,” she said.
But she credits the precautions with helping to reduce transmission of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Keeping up with CDC guidance, and making their own decisions
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools “maintain a distance of at least 6 feet and maximize ventilation as much as possible” during meal times, but that is difficult to accomplish in some crowded facilities. And moving half of students from the cafeteria to a spaces like gyms requires double the adults to supervise them.
Even as the omicron variant spreads and case counts spikes around the country, there haven’t been broad renewed conversations about changing lunch protocols, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, which advocates for school meal professionals.
Approaches vary widely around the country—and sometimes between schools in the same district, she said.
“It looks different this year [2021-22] than it did last year [2020-21],” said Mary Pfeiffer, administrator of the Neenah Joint School District in Neenah, Wis.
The 6,700 student district took a more-cautious approach in the 2020-21 school year by requiring elementary school students to eat in classrooms and spreading high school students out in a gym during meal time. But tracking where 2,000 high school students sat for lunch was “virtually impossible” Pfeiffer said.
This year, the district has returned to more “business as usual,” but it requires precautions like masking throughout the day and in the lunch line if more than 2 percent of school-based COVID-19 tests come back positive. As students returned for the new semester, rates went as high as 2.5 percent, Pfeiffer said.
How precautions are received in various communities
Local news reports show school meal procedures have been a concern in some parts of the country as administrators rush to contain the new variant, which has sent absentee numbers spiking.
In Orange County, N.C., the school board voted Jan. 10 to temporarily limit student lunches to 15 minutes and to prohibit talking during meal times, which can spread the airborne virus more readily, the News Observer reported. The short-term rules, set to last about a month, also call for the return of universal masking in the district and limiting spectators at school events.
The Ridgefield Park, N.J., district began dismissing students just before lunch Jan. 12, in part to avoid transmission risk during meal times, NJ.com reported. The early dismissal schedule, set to last until at least Jan. 20, came after a surge of absences in the week after winter break, the outlet reported.
In Montgomery County, Md., a District of Columbia suburb that is home to the National Institutes of Health, some students have circulated petitions calling for stronger precautions or even a return to remote learning. Maryland students are required to wear masks at school, with meal times as one of few exceptions.
“Lunch is a COVID frenzy where everyone has to take off their mask,” student organizer Zoe Cantor said at a virtual town hall meeting Jan. 9, WTOP reported.
But other school systems see little interest in new protocols and fatigue with precautions educators and families have struggled to maintain as the pandemic enters its third year.
For example, officials at the Windsor, Calif., district apologized to parents last month after some reported their children came home “soaking wet” after an outdoor lunch time on a rainy day, the Press Democrat reported. Officials said in a letter that the elementary school students ate in tents that protected them from rain, but that some had gotten wet on a walk back to the building.
School officials said they would try to revise plans to allow students to eat in their classrooms instead, but said it may be difficult to find adequate staff to do so.
Evie Blad is a reporter for Education Week who covers education politics and policy.