COVID makes school lunch complicated in NYC

Desks for lunch are socially distanced in a school cafeteria.
Desks were placed at a distance from each other in the cafeteria of a Bronx middle and high school that hosted summer school in 2020. Many parents and educators want extra COVID precautions at lunchtime, when students won’t be wearing masks. (Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat)

Bronx mom Grisel Cardona is hopeful that her daughter’s fourth-grade class will be able to eat on the playground this year as often as possible, even if it means sitting picnic-style on the ground.

She’s worried about students socializing together during a time of day that they can’t wear masks and hopes that being outdoors can help minimize the risk of COVID spreading while they lunch together. 

“It’s going to be a little bit scary. But at this point, with the way the world is going, I’ve got to leave it in God’s hands,” said Cardona, the president of the parent association at P.S. 294 in the Mount Eden neighborhood of the South Bronx.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has touted the city’s “layered” safety standards in schools, with universal masking, increased ventilation, COVID testing every two weeks, and mandatory vaccinations for teachers. But unlike last year’s pandemic backdrop, the nation’s largest school district hurtles toward its Sept. 13 opening day with buildings back to full capacity and no option to learn remotely, just as COVID rates among children are rising. 

Experts warn that lunchtime could be the riskiest part of the school day — when masks come off, guards are let down, and students are chatting away, letting forth aerosols inside rooms that might not have space for physical distancing. Though New York City has said students should be kept three feet apart, the guidance gives schools leeway, stating that should be done “where possible.”

That leaves the door open for school-by-school approaches. With the first day of class rapidly approaching, many parents and school staff are nervous about keeping students safe while eating together.

In New York City, eating at an indoor restaurant is limited to those who have been fully vaccinated. In classrooms, however, many remain too young for vaccines. 

“Most schools don’t have an appropriate awareness of the added risk at mealtimes or any other time when students take off their masks,” said Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist and associate professor at the University of Denver. “They need to be paying attention to that aspect.”

COVID can spread through the air, and when it comes to students eating lunch together, Huffman makes an analogy to children swimming. Having students follow COVID mitigations all day is like putting them in the sea while everyone holds their bladders. Lunchtime, he said, is more like them jumping in a hot tub where students all relieve themselves.

Huffman said schools should take extra precautions any time masks are off indoors. More ventilation can help. Or better yet, students should head outside whenever possible, he said.

There is little definitive evidence on the effectiveness of masks in schools, where many preventative measures are taken together, making masking difficult to study. A broader body of evidence from other settings that suggests that masks help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases like COVID.

Schools in other parts of the country have taken steps to make lunchtime safer. In Indianapolis, where hundreds have been forced into quarantine in just the first month of school, some students will now have assigned seating in cafeterias, which could limit exposure and make potential contact tracing easier by having children sitting next to the same peers every day. In Newark, students will eat in their classrooms so they don’t mix with other classes.

In New York City, officials with the education department recommend that schools use outdoor spaces or other large areas for meal times, and to start lunch earlier or later so fewer students are in the cafeteria at once. Students must all face in the same direction when they eat, according to guidance shared with principals. 

Kevin Moran, the head of operations for the district, said at a public hearing on Wednesday that officials are going school to school, working with principals to measure how much air is flowing through cafeterias and finding other large spaces where students can eat. The city is also providing extra ventilation with air purifiers and exhaust fans in cafeterias.

But schools are not required to practice physical distancing at lunch, Moran said. School leaders should “maximize physical distancing as much as possible,” according to Nathaniel Styer, an education department spokesperson. He said that’s in line with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends following physical distancing unless that prevents a return to classes for all students. 

Liz Rosenberg, a mother of two in Brooklyn who has been actively advocating for a remote school option, said her son’s middle school is lucky to have outdoor space. They’ll have “instructional lunch” outside — a combined lunch period and advisory session. Making lunch a part of the school day will allow them to dismiss early. So if students are uncomfortable eating, even while outside, they’ll have fewer hours to wait between meals, she said. 

Last year, 840 schools applied to the education department to open up additional outdoor space, such as public streets, for instruction and eating. Officials with the education department said that will continue this year. But eating outside is weather dependent, and rainy days or extreme temperatures could force schools to come up with a complicated “Plan B.” And not all schools can easily head outside in New York City, where space is in short supply. Some communities may not feel safe leaving the building, either because of violence in the surrounding community or because of the additional staffing and supervision that might be necessary.

Many high schools let their students leave campus for lunch, something that more may do next year. Lydia Howrilka, a social studies teacher in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, said she has safety concerns about that. She’s not sure yet how her 1,300-student school is handling lunch, and wouldn’t mind opening her classroom to some students so they can practice more physical distancing while eating. Her room has windows that open, four air purifiers — two that she bought herself and two that the education department provided — and air conditioning with filters. 

But she wouldn’t feel comfortable with a class of 28 students eating at one time.

“It’s just going to be hard,” she said.

Three times a day, the pre-K students in Alison Haun’s class will take off their masks to eat together: once for breakfast, then for snack time, and finally, for lunch. Guidance from the education department says they should eat in the classroom.

With 18 students on her roster, children will be sitting at shared tables. Haun said laying out her classroom feels like playing Tetris as she tries different configurations to ensure physical distancing and also meet requirements that students aren’t facing each other while they eat — a big departure from the family-style meals that are usually a part of pre-K classrooms. 

There are other safety measures in place in her room: windows that open, air purifiers, and air conditioning with filters. Still, she said that parents are asking for a remote option every day. Many of the students at her school are Asian, a demographic that was most likely to learn online last year.

“I don’t understand how we can keep kids safe when they’re all on top of each other,” she said. “I think the administrators are doing everything they can to space them out. The teachers are too. I’m putting the chairs as far apart as I can. So it’s just hard that there’s not enough space for the littlest learners who can’t be vaccinated. And it’s frustrating.” 

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