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Parents and teachers push to move school lunches outdoors to help reduce spread of virus

Picnic tables are set up in the courtyard of Bancroft Elementary in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Northwest Washington so students can eat outside during the pandemic. (Perry Stein/The Washington Post)
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At Bancroft Elementary in Northwest Washington, families created a schedule for parents to volunteer to watch children during their lunch periods, ensuring everyone can space out and eat outdoors. At Thomson Elementary, a school in the heart of downtown D.C., the rooftop playground is under renovation, so most students eat lunch inside each day. And at Hendley Elementary in Southeast Washington, a school whose windows and playground have been pierced by neighborhood gunfire on multiple occasions, school staff members are working to locate the safest space for students to eat outdoors.

School lunches, long a fun hallmark of youth friendships and the school day, have transformed into a daily period of anxiety for many families and teachers during the pandemic. It’s the one time during the day when — even in cities like D.C. with strict mask requirements — children can be inside maskless.

Some parents say they have kept their unvaccinated children out of restaurants during the pandemic and don’t want them now eating maskless in an indoor cafeteria with dozens of other children.

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And like school districts across the country that are clamoring for tents and outdoor furniture, many D.C. schools are still waiting for their back-ordered items to be delivered.

“I’m not overly worried, but it seems that as a city we should be doing everything possible we can do to make in-person [learning] as safe as possible, and we’re not,” said Priya Cook, a mother of two elementary students at Bancroft Elementary, who have eaten lunch indoors while their school waits for back-ordered furniture to be delivered. “There’s a lot of low-lift methods for mitigating covid transmission that we are not doing.”

Public health experts say that while indoor lunch can be pulled off safely, it does carry a higher risk than sitting masked in a classroom. Experts say students should eat with their masks off for fewer than 15 minutes, pulling the face coverings back on when they want to speak. Schools should keep children in assigned seats and spread them out as much as possible, they say.

D.C. Public Schools announced this summer that preschoolers would eat in their classrooms, while students in older grades would eat together in the cafeteria. Some students also eat school-provided breakfasts in their classrooms each day.

But the school system has also encouraged schools to eat lunch outdoors and has left the planning to individual campuses to make it happen. Schools have received between $20,000 and $30,000 in federal funding to purchase equipment, including tents, tables and sheds, that could be used for outdoor eating, learning or other activities. Some schools raised money to purchase additional items and programming.

But there is no uniform protocol. At Deal Middle School in Northwest Washington, for example, students eat lunch spaced out on the football field. Other schools with football fields have students eating indoors.

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And not all schools have the space or volunteer manpower to pull off outdoor meals.

In Northern Virginia, Alexandria City Public Schools officials are holding lunch outdoors only for students at the city’s one high school, which has a long tradition of allowing students to eat outside. In lower and middle schools, students are instead eating indoors, but with “mitigating measures such as use of seating charts, podding and sign-in sheets,” according to the district’s website.

Fairfax County school officials recently said the district will use staggered schedules, hold meals outdoors or in large rooms whenever possible, and use Plexiglass to help separate children.

At recent events, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee have highlighted outdoor spaces at newly modernized schools. At West Elementary, some classrooms had garage-style doors so student can learn indoors and outdoors. At Capitol Hill Montessori, classrooms have outdoor balconies attached to their classrooms where teachers can set up chairs and teach. There’s also a courtyard and rooftop field.

“We have invested over $4 million in outdoor furniture to support learning and other outdoor activities,” Ferebee said at an event unveiling the new Capitol Hill Montessori building. “In the next week or two we should have all the equipment in schools.”

But the pandemic has also highlighted the disparate spaces and challenges of different schools. Sophia Baratta, a second-grade teacher at Hendley Elementary, said staff members located a secluded space higher than street level where they felt students can eat and learn and be safe from neighborhood gun violence. The space is located by the cafeteria entrance, so students can quickly run indoors if needed.

But some of the equipment has not been delivered, and there is debris that the school is waiting for the city to pick up before students can begin eating outside.

“I’m disheartened a little bit about the lack of equity going around in the District in terms of providing the same type of opportunities,” said Baratta, who is a member of EmpowerEd, a teacher advocacy organization that has been advocating outdoor learning during the pandemic. “We want to have a place where children can feel safe inside and outside the classroom.”

Parents say their schools have relied on them to make outdoor lunches happen. And it’s up to schools to build the tents and furniture delivered to them, according to teachers and school administrators.

When Bancroft administrators informed Cook that it would take extra staff members to pull off the logistics and extra supervision required for outdoor lunches, 55 parents volunteered to take shifts, she said. At a recent parent meeting at School Without Walls at Francis Stevens, an elementary and middle school, leaders announced that they would have a volunteer day later this month when families could come build the outdoor furniture.

Kathy Markus, a mother and substitute teacher at Thomson Elementary, said the school currently only has space to accommodate a few classrooms to eat outdoors each day.

“I wish the administration had done a better job over the last several months to figure this out,” Markus said. “Having the kids eat inside . . . goes against all the mitigation strategies that have been put in class to protect kids.”