Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated Aparna Kumar’s title. She is an assistant professor of nursing at Thomas Jefferson University, College of Nursing.
Mary McIntyre, a middle school reading intervention teacher in Albemarle County, Va., is crossing her fingers for good weather in mid-March, when her district plans to reopen school buildings.
If it’s warm enough, students will eat lunch outside. But if the weather doesn’t cooperate, she and her colleagues will be supervising unmasked students as they eat in their classrooms—a situation that is worrying some teachers across the country whose schools may be returning to in-person instruction.
“Our local restaurants have capacity restrictions,” McIntyre said. “So it makes you wonder if the capacity limits should be the same at schools.”
Figuring out how to run school lunchtime safely during the pandemic isn’t a new problem—many schools have brought students back to buildings for full days, which can include breakfast, lunch, and snacks, without becoming major hubs for COVID-19 transmission.
Still, mealtimes remain a thorny issue as more schools consider opening their doors for the first time since shutdowns last spring, or increasing the number of students on campus. Now, winter weather means that having students eat outside—an often-cited strategy in the fall—is not currently an option in many areas of the country.
Lunch is a source of anxiety for teachers and district leaders alike: In a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webinar for about 400 superintendents, it was among the topics participants had the most questions about.
Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, said it’s fair for teachers to be worried about students eating at school: Indoor restaurant dining, which many experts agree is risky, is a “good analogy” for lunch and snack breaks.
“Schools are doing a lot to reduce the risk of transmission, including cohorting and masks, and physical distancing and ventilation,” Nash said. “That’s great, and these things all really work well—and I would agree that the weak link for educators, staff, and students, is anything indoors where you have to take your mask off.”
Even so, Nash and other experts noted two key differences between lunchrooms and restaurants that could influence schools’ risk-benefit calculation.
First, schools can put in place safety precautions that restaurants can’t, like putting students in cohorts that have mealtimes in separate spaces, requiring that students refrain from talking while they have their masks off, or limiting the lunch period to 15-20 minutes, said Aparna Kumar, an assistant professor of nursing at Thomas Jefferson University, College of Nursing and the chief community officer for Dear Pandemic, a COVID-19 FAQ site written by a community of researchers and clinicians.
The second big difference, said Nash: “Indoor dining is a luxury. It doesn’t need to happen.” Getting kids back into classrooms, and feeding them while they’re there, is a much higher priority.
It’s an argument that resonates with McIntyre, who said that she wants to be in the building with students.
“I personally have not eaten in a restaurant since this pandemic started. Even with increased ventilation and decreased capacity, it is not a risk I’m willing to take,” she said. “In some ways I will be taking that risk on at school for the students, at lunch, because I believe they need to have it.”
Still, while schools and educators have to accept more risk serving lunch than they would giving a lesson, some lunch scenarios are riskier than others, experts said. For example: Having hundreds of students in one cafeteria, with minimal distancing between them, “that’s just not a good idea,” said Kumar. If that’s the only option, she said, it might be better to only bring students back for half-days, and send them home with lunch.
“People talk about it as if the only risk we should be considering is transmission in the classroom when class is in session,” said Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Not only lunch, but pick up and drop off time, all those other activities that occur around the school, those are also a piece of risk.”
Lunch plans might look different in theory vs. practice
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers some general guidelines for school mealtimes in classrooms and cafeterias.
Distancing and ventilation are key: The guidelines say that students should sit six feet apart and meals should be served in areas with good airflow—outside is best, inside in a well-ventilated room is OK. The CDC also recommends grab-and-go or individually plated meals, to faciliate social distancing and avoid multiple people touching the same serving utensils. Students should wear masks when they’re not eating, and high-touch surfaces like lunch tables should be sanitized often.
If schools take precautions like this at lunchtime, coupled with other efforts to reduce risk throughout the day, mealtime can be managed safely, said Kristen E. Gibson, an associate professor of food safety and microbiology at the University of Arkansas.
“If schools are super-spreader environments, and lunch was a big problem, you would see it,” Gibson said, referencing data showing that, when schools take safety precautions and community spread is low, schools aren’t centers of COVID-19 transmission. “I don’t think lunch should dictate whether a school should reopen or not. I don’t think the evidence is there.”
Some schools have had success with tightly organized plans. At Quincy Elementary School in Zeeland, Mich., students eat lunch at their seats in their classrooms, with their cohort, said Principal Allyson Apsey. The school also shortened lunch and extended recess, minimizing the amount of time that students spend indoors maskless.
“We feel pretty confident about it,” said Apsey, talking about the lunchtime system. While the school has seen cases of COVID-19, Apsey said, they don’t know of any outbreaks stemming from in-school transmission.
But other educators said that even a good plan in theory can break down in practice.
Nina, an elementary school aide in Allentown, Penn., who asked that only her first name be used, monitors six 25-minute lunch periods a day in the school gym, one for each grade level. Her school and district are doing the right things, she said: spacing students six feet apart while they eat, having students use hand sanitizer on the way in and out of the gym, providing personal protective equipment so that lunchtime staff can double-mask.
Still, the reality of helping young kids with lunch is messier than the ideal outlined in CDC diagrams: Kids cough, touch each other, and yell to friends across the room without their masks on, Nina said. She comes into close proximity with unmasked students often, to help them open a yogurt, for example, or tie their mask back on after eating.
“Our stress levels are through the roof,” said Nina, who isn’t vaccinated. (Outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania educators aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine.)
Masks are one of the best mitigation strategies available for COVID-19, so when they have to be off—like during lunchtime—it’s even more important to adhere as closely as possible to other safety precautions, said Jennifer Goldman, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, and an expert in pediatric infectious diseases.
“We see in the studies published, once many of those mitigation strategies start to go, then you can see in-school transmission,” she said.
Lunchtime mitigation strategies are even more important in middle and high schools, where students are at a higher risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19, said Lessler of Johns Hopkins.
Education Week spoke with five experts about how schools can make lunchtime safer. Here are five key tactics:
1) Eat outside or ventilate well
All five experts agreed that the best option, weather and space permitting, is to have lunch outside. “Outdoor dining, six feet apart, everybody washes up and remasks before getting close to each other, and everybody has independent lunches … that is going to be the safest reasonable scenario,” said Lessler.
It’s about the same risk level as going for a walk with a coffee, said Kumar. “We have very little evidence for outside transmission,” she added.
In the dead of winter, when eating outside isn’t an option in much of the country, ventilation is one of the most important considerations, experts said—much more so than plexiglass shields or cleaning surfaces. “The virus is not going to stop because there’s a barrier that’s three or four feet high. The air is going to flow how the air is going to flow,” said Gibson.
Updating HVAC systems is going to give schools the “biggest bang for the buck,” not just for lunch, but throughout the school day, Gibson said. If that’s not possible, said Kumar, students could eat lunch with the windows open.
2) Cohort in classrooms or space out
If students are inside, experts agreed, the smaller the group and the bigger the space, the better. But what does that look like in practice? “It’s so school-specific,” said Gibson.
For example: About 70 percent of schools surveyed by the School Nutrition Association in September 2020 said they planned to have students eat lunch in their classrooms. There are a few big benefits to this strategy, experts said: Students and adults alike are exposed to fewer unmasked individuals at once, and it can allow for students to remain in their small classroom cohorts, if that’s a strategy the school is using.
But there are also potential drawbacks, said Lessler. “The cafeteria tends to be this large, open area. Often it’s doubling as a gym. The classrooms tend to be much smaller, much more closed areas,” he said. “By eating in classrooms, you could be reducing the number of students who are possibly exposed during that eating time, but increasing the risk of exposure by having higher density and lesser quality ventilation.”
So which is the right strategy, classrooms or cafeteria? It depends on the school context.
If the school is strictly following a cohorting protocol, then it makes sense to keep lunch in classrooms, even if that means students are eating closer together, Lessler said. But if the school isn’t using cohorts—that is, if students are mixing with different students throughout the day—there may be fewer benefits to keeping them in classrooms for lunch. “You might as well get them in the most well-ventilated space where people can be spaced out,” Lessler said.
And the equation might change again depending on ventilation—if the classrooms have windows that open, but the cafeteria doesn’t, for example. “If the airflow is turning over faster in a smaller space, and it’s turning over more, then that would probably be better” than a larger, unventilated space, said Gibson.
Several experts also suggested making lunch periods shorter. “It stinks, because kids don’t get that much downtime these days, but the shorter the time their masks are off the better,” said Nash.
3) Limit talking
Kids have to take their masks off to eat. But data suggest that mask-wearing also relaxes a bit for the rest of the lunch period: In a recent CDC survey, only 36 percent of students said that their peers always wore masks in the cafeteria when not eating, compared to 65 percent who said that students were always masked in the classroom.
This is not best practice, experts said: Students should have their masks on at all times when they’re not eating. Staff should consider double-masking, said Nash, a precaution that they should take anytime they’re around groups of unmasked kids—including during naptime for preschoolers and kindergartners.
And a bigger ask: Students should eat lunch silently. “We know for example that talking, screaming, singing, laughing, are all things that spew viral particles,” said Kumar. Instead, she said, schools could show movies or engage kids in quiet activities. Apsey, the Michigan principal, said some of her teachers have done read-alouds while kids eat.
It’s “really, really, hard” to make these kinds of changes, and to ask students not to socialize during lunch—but it’s an important safety precaution, said Goldman, the pediatric infectious disease expert at UMKC.
4) Consider assigned seating
Keeping students in cohorts makes for easier contract tracing in the event of a case, said Goldman. But if multiple groups of students are in the cafeteria at once, schools should consider assigned seating. That way, schools can know which students were within a six-foot radius of any peer who tests positive for COVID-19.
In a big cafeteria, it is possible that students outside of that immediate vicinity could have been exposed too, said Gibson—the virus doesn’t always stop at six feet. But practically, working with a seating chart might be “the best you can do,” she said.
5) No lunch line
Boxed or prepared lunches that don’t require cafeteria staff and kids to line up buffet style are best, said Goldman.
“You want to avoid those focal points where everyone is close together and grouped together, where you lose your social distancing,” said Lessler. He added that surfaces, like lunch tables, should be frequently sanitized.
Again, similar precautions can be taken for naptime, said Kumar: Make sure students are spaced apart as much as possible since they can’t wear masks, and don’t share blankets or stuffed animals.
As more school staff and teachers are vaccinated, schools might consider putting those who have gotten the shot first in line for lunch duty, naptime, and other higher-risk periods, said Nash.
“If there’s any flexibility, maybe it’s possible to swap out certain people who may be less vulnerable to supervise these kinds of activities,” he said.