Staggered times, outdoor dining tents, off-campus options and eating in gymnasiums – these are some of the ways Washington school districts will accommodate lunch for thousands of students while following COVID-19 safety guidelines.
As arguably one of the riskiest parts of the school day when students will be maskless and will want to socialize, lunchtime logistics have become a vital coordination to keep students and staff safe.
“There are so many variables,” said Jennifer Jandayan, director of food and nutrition services and district warehousing at Shoreline School District. Among the biggest challenges, she said, is “just trying to figure out how to space students and to get consensus.”
Shoreline starts school Wednesday like many school districts in the Puget Sound area, including Seattle. And for many districts, it will be the first return to full-time, in-person instructions since schools were forced to shut down in March 2020.
Though districts are following safety guidelines set by the state department of health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lunch will look different campus-to-campus depending on the layout of the school. While the CDC says social distancing by 3 feet is adequate in classrooms, it advises students stay at least 6 feet apart while at lunch.
For some districts, it’s meant hiring more staff – or even turning to parent volunteers – to increase custodial services and supervision. It’s also meant changes to how food is served.
‘No easy answers’
Before the first day of school for the Kent School District last Thursday, Kristy Longanbill said she was “hopeful” about Carriage Crest Elementary School’s approach to lunch with staggered times to limit the number of students eating at a time.
But when her kids, a first-grader and sixth-grader at Carriage Crest, came home, they said students sat across from each other and close together in the cafeteria.
“There were too many people and not enough seats,” said Longanbill. “It did not give me the feeling of a safe place for eating.”
While Loganbill said she feels her kids are safe in the classroom, she said she feels helpless not knowing what happens at lunch other than what she learns from her kids.
Longanbill said it would make her feel more comfortable if there were an option for students to eat outside. Some parents, she said, have picked up their kids at lunch to eat in the car.
Coordinating lunchtime has been “our greatest logistical challenge because it’s the one time of the day that students have to remove their masks,” said Carriage Crest Principal Shawn Cook.
Staff works “tirelessly” to make sure students are safe at school, Cook said, and have been teaching and training students how to follow safety protocols. Lunch tables are spread out with markers to space out students, who wash their hands or use sanitizers before eating. And ventilation has increased to replace indoor air with outside air, he said.
“For schools, the return to full-day, in-person learning has presented many challenges for which there are no easy answers,” Cook said in an email.
Cook said he is speaking with district staff and other principals to look at all options to make lunchtime as safe as possible.
Other school districts
About 25 Seattle Public Schools campuses will use 30-foot-by-80-foot outdoor tents to move students outside during lunch period, district spokesperson Tim Robinson said. The tents will stay up as long as necessary and are expected to last through the rainy season, he said.
Other Seattle schools are using gyms and common areas in addition to cafeterias to space out students. High school students are also being encouraged to eat off-campus.
“Students seeking meals off campus would lend itself to helping with social distancing,” Robinson said.
Other school districts in King County, including Bellevue, Lake Washington, Issaquah and Shoreline, also allow off-campus lunch for high school students.
Only juniors and seniors have that option at Lake Washington and Issaquah schools, according to district spokespeople.
At Bellevue schools, parents have the option of picking up their children during lunch to eat in the car, spokesperson Janine Thorn said.
Some schools in the Northshore School District are using outdoor tents or are considering purchasing tents for rainy days, according to district spokesperson Lisa Youngblood Hall. Inglemoor High School is moving tables outside and using tents when it rains.
Other Northshore schools are opening up courtyards and having some students eat on stages in the cafeterias, Youngblood Hall said. Additional lunch periods have also been added to lessen the number of students eating at a time.
Shoreline has two new middle schools that were built around outside space Jandayan said, which has been beneficial for outdoor eating. Gyms can’t be used for lunch because some students are in P.E. while students eat during three different lunch periods.
Shoreline high schools are even using hallways for lunch to accommodate social distancing, she said.
More staff, menu changes
While finding additional space for students has been a challenge, lack of staffing and food shortages have exacerbated problems, said Issaquah School District spokesperson Lesha Engles.
Some school districts had to beef up staffing during lunch because students are more spread out. Lake Washington had to add staff to supervise lunch, and Shoreline added both custodial and supervising staff.
Northshore School District’s Leota Middle School is seeking parent volunteers to help oversee students during lunch so they can open up additional space, Youngblood Hall said.
Lake Washington eliminated most self-serve meals and Shoreline’s lunch menus changed “significantly” to make sure meals are packaged and safe.
“We don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable,” Jandayan said. “We’re going above and beyond, wrapping and covering things and reducing touch points.”
Elementary schools at Shoreline are having picnic-style lunches, using washable vinyl mats, to reduce the number of tables needed to properly space out students.
“We would need twice as many tables and it’s not feasible with the resources we have,” she said.
Many school districts are still offering free lunches for all students, regardless of income, this school year. Jandayan said that will allow lunch lines at Shoreline schools move quicker and regulate congestion.
“It’s sort of coming back to normal but if you compare the start of this year to 2019 there are a lot of things that are different,” Jandayan said.
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