INDIANAPOLIS – In past school years, kids sat together at a table in the cafeteria, some from their own class, some from others. Some even shared food with each other.
Now, in schools open for in-person instruction, some students will eat lunch in their classrooms or will sit with their classes in the cafeteria as schools try to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Schools that opened early in central Indiana provide a hint of what others across the country can expect as they enact various lunchtime safety measures, including prepackaging meals and frequently cleaning the lunchroom.
Having opened in late July for in-person instruction, Avon Community School makes children in kindergarten through sixth grade sit with their classes at lunch.
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Julie Pinkins' daughter is a first grader at an elementary school in Avon. She said she was surprised that her child's class would be in a cafeteria with other classes instead of eating in its own classroom.
“I’ve kind of had to feel like, since I have opted to send her back, it was our choice,” she said, “and you just have to trust that people making these decisions are doing what they know to be best, but it’s a little nerve-wracking.”
Before students eat
Students will have to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer before they eat, according to some schools' reopening plans.
Students will be served prepackaged meals in many cases. John Christenson, medical director of infection prevention at Riley Hospital for Children, said these meals minimize the risk of infection, because not a lot of people touch them. At buffets, too many people put their hands on the food. Some districts limit or don't offer self-service items.
Some schools also limit the number of options for meals. Zionsville Community Schools’ reopening plan says the schools will have a minimum of four cold lunch choices in August, which will be expanded “when appropriate.” Some school districts, including Sheridan Community Schools and Noblesville Schools, indicated in their reopening plans that meals will continue to be free or at a reduced cost for those who qualify.
When children are about to pay for their food, they may notice differences there, too. At Carmel Clay Schools, cash will be allowed in only one serving line in each cafeteria. Noblesville Schools will not accept cash in the lunch line, so parents will have to prepay for the food online or in the school office.
Eating in cafeteria or elsewhere
Christenson recommended that schools “build some distance” between kids in the cafeteria.
“They need to have some space between the children,” he said, “because they have to take their masks off."
Christenson said it’s important that schools have cohorts – groups of children that are always together and don’t mingle with other groups.
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Many schools plan such measures. Zionsville Community Schools’ cafeterias will be at 50% to 65% capacity. Some districts make students sit in assigned seats. And some students will eat in their classrooms.
Some districts say in their reopening plans that children can bring their own lunches.
Christenson advised that students don’t share food items, which Zionsville Community Schools and the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township have prohibited. Zionsville Superintendent Scott Robison said via a spokesperson that enforcement of the no-food-sharing rule will be determined, but adults monitor all lunch periods.
Some schools don't allow visitors at lunchtime.
“The only thing that I think my girls are the most disappointed about is hearing that mommy and daddy cannot come in and have lunch with them at all,” said Rachel Mathew, a Zionsville Community Schools parent. “That is the biggest thing that affects them.”
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She and her husband ate lunch once with each of their daughters last year. She said they bring fast food for their daughters when they visit. She understands the rule and said it would not make sense to allow parents and visitors to come into school for lunch.
Another way schools try to ensure that cafeterias will be safe for students is through frequent cleaning. Noblesville Schools will clean cafeteria tables and serving lines between each lunch period. Decatur Township schools plan to clean seating areas between each group of students and will clean the kitchen and serving area every two hours or whenever visibly dirty.
Lunch for remote learners
Many schools give parents the option of letting their children learn from home. Some districts, such as Sheridan Community Schools and MSD Wayne Township, indicated that remote learners will receive school meals. Other districts' reopening plans do not address meals for online learners.
Indianapolis Public Schools starts the school year with full-time remote instruction. The district will still offer meals to all students, which will be served at many locations, according to IPS' website.
Washington Township schools, which are also starting the school year online, allow parents to pick up breakfast and lunch daily at all school locations, according to the district's website. Meals will be charged in the same way as if the students were inside the school building.
Hamilton Southeastern Schools teach students remotely. HSE parents will preorder meals on Thursdays and pick them up the following Tuesday.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Coronavirus: Students can expect new lunch routine at reopened schools