INDIANAPOLIS — In past school years, you could find kids sitting together at a table in the cafeteria, some from their own class, some from others. You might have heard laughter and perhaps even spotted students sharing food with each other.
Now, in schools that decide to 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 pre-packaging meals and frequently cleaning the lunchroom.
Having opened in late July for in-person instruction, Avon Community School Corp. is making children in grades 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. Prior to her daughter starting school, 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.”
Washing hands and using hand sanitizer will be a point of emphasis at schools that have reopened and are serving meals.
Before students eat
Students will have to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer before they eat, according to some schools’ reopening plans.
And while students are in line for food, they will be served pre-packaged 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, on the other hand, too many people put their hands in the food. Some districts are not offering self-service items or only allowing limited self-service.
Some schools are also limiting the number of options for meals. Zionsville Community Schools’ reopening plan, for example, says the schools will have a minimum of four cold lunch choices in August, which will be expanded “when appropriate.” And 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 check out their food, they may notice differences there, too. At Carmel Clay Schools, cash will only be allowed in one serving line in each cafeteria. Noblesville Schools will not be accepting cash in the lunch line, so parents will have to prepay for the food online or in the school office.
Some schools that have reopened are offering fewer meal choices at lunch. Buffets are also out, in favor of pre-packaged meals that can be made more safely and minimize the risk of infection because not a lot of people touch them.
Eating in the cafeteria or elsewhere
Christenson of Riley Hospital for Children 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 also said it’s important that schools have cohorts – groups of children that are always together and that don’t mingle with other groups.
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Many schools are already planning these kind of measures. Zionsville Community Schools’ cafeterias, for example, will be at 50 to 65% capacity. Some districts are making elementary or all students sit in assigned seats. And some students will eat in their classrooms or other areas of the school.
Some districts say in their reopening plans that children can bring their own lunches.
Kids speak French in their kindergarten class at the International School of Indiana lower school, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. The school offers foreign language immersion classes.
Christenson advised that students don’t share food items, which districts such as Zionsville Community Schools and the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township have prohibited. Zionsville superintendent Scott Robison said in a message sent via a spokesperson that enforcement of the no food sharing rule will be determined, but adults are monitoring all lunch periods.
Another change to school meals is that some schools are not allowing 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 ate lunch once with each of her daughters last year, and her husband also dined with each of them one time. She said they bring fast food for their daughters when they visit. She understands the rule, though, and said it would not make sense to allow parents and visitors to come into school for lunch.
Another way schools are ensuring that cafeterias will be safe for students is through frequent cleaning. For example, Noblesville Schools will clean cafeteria tables and serving lines between each lunch period. Decatur Township school plan to clean seating areas between each group of students and will also clean the kitchen and serving area every two hours or whenever visibly dirty.
Many schools will have lunch — and in some cases even breakfast — plans in place for students who will be learning from home, either because of their choice or because the schools are reopening with full-time remote instruction.
Lunch for remote learners
Many schools are giving parents the option of letting their children learn from home. Some districts, such as Sheridan Community Schools and MSD Wayne Township, have indicated that remote learners will receive school meals. Other districts’ reopening plans do not address meals for online learners.
Indianapolis Public Schools is starting the school year with full-time remote instruction. The district will still be offering 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, are allowing 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 are also teaching students remotely. HSE parents will pre-order meals on Thursday and pick up the meals the following Tuesday.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Coronavirus: Students can expect new lunch routine at reopened schools