The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Montgomery County should make outdoor school lunch Plan A

(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied is the founder of Speak Up Advocacy and a former PTA president. Joanna Snyder is an outdoor learning expert and science curriculum specialist at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California Berkeley.

As the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have warned “the war has changed.” We in the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) community must be nimble so students can continue safely learning in person this fall. The greatest risk for viral transmission for students is likely when they are unmasked for lunch. Just as many of us choose the outdoor patio at a restaurant to avoid indoor seating, we should give students an outdoor lunch option as often as possible to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission.

It is challenging for schools to return to full capacity while maintaining the CDC guidance of three feet of separation while eating indoors. Most schools are not designed to accommodate these protocols. However, most schools do have outdoor space that could be used for a safer lunch.

MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa B. McKnight has encouraged the use of outdoor spaces in general terms, but successful implementation requires explicit administrative support, detailed guidance, dedicated funding and staffing. The current plan — for hundreds of students to be confined to indoor cafeterias for lunch — is shortsighted and high-risk, given the contagiousness of the delta variant.

MCPS must invest in outdoor infrastructure, and outdoor lunch must be Plan A.

Getting started does not require a major investment. Many schools have outdoor areas that naturally offer space for students to spread out. Where established seating areas aren’t possible, portable seating — such as class sets of five-gallon buckets or sit pads — can be used. Canopies and tents can be utilized for inclement weather.

We can follow paths blazed by Arlington Public Schools and Baltimore City Schools to rapidly implement outdoor school lunch. Fairfax County Public Schools invested $2 million of its coronavirus recovery funds in outdoor infrastructure. D.C. Public Schools dedicated $9 million of its funds for outdoor innovations. Green Schoolyards America has collected best practices from across the country on outdoor meals and outdoor learning.

Where is MCPS?

Some MCPS school leaders took the initiative in the spring to expand existing outdoor efforts on their own. Many high schools expanded their closed-campus outdoor lunch option onto school grounds and into stadiums, navigating the added challenges of increased trash and litter. Some elementary schools have thriving gardens, which are incorporated into lesson plans. Ninety MCPS schools are already certified Green Schools and, thus, are well-positioned to expand outdoor efforts. We need more of that.

School districts that succeed in outdoor innovations are driven by visionary leadership and systemic support. Currently, leaders in MCPS Department of Facilities Management are developing a resource for principals to offer guidance for increasing the use of outdoor spaces. It is an excellent first step, but the burden to implement such efforts cannot fall solely on the shoulders of individual school leaders, who are already navigating so many unprecedented challenges. We urge MCPS leadership to take a more proactive approach:

  • Adopt a formal policy that outdoor school lunch is Plan A;
  • Provide schools with written guidance, infrastructure, equipment and support to facilitate outdoor school lunch;
  • Explicitly endorse the use of outdoor space beyond lunch; and
  • Establish a working group for school leaders to share best practices for successful use of outdoor spaces.

An investment in outdoor infrastructure can also help address the trauma and uncertainty of the past 17 months. Using outdoor spaces not only reduces the risk of coronavirus transmission (especially during meals), but it also helps students heal and thrive, emotionally and academically.

Maryland Together: Maryland’s Recovery Plan highlights that “student interactions within nature spaces extend beyond improved cognition to include mental health and general well-being and restoration, with the potential to decrease anxiety and stress.”

MCPS will receive $252 million over four years for coronavirus response and recovery. Investing a relatively small amount in outdoor infrastructure could be a game-changer for the immediate safety of our community, ensure students remain learning in person and be the catalyst that transforms our learning systems for years to come.