DurinG the question-and-answer portion of a virtual town hall last week, Seattle Public Schools interim superintendent Brent Jones paused to recognize the elephant in the chat room. “I think this one is important,” he said before reading the next query, “because I think sometimes there’s some misinformation out there.”
A parent of a middle school boy, he explained, questioned the lunch policy at their son’s school. With the Delta coronavirus variant spreading, students at this building would be eating indoors and, of course, unmasked. “How can this possibly be safe?” the parent wondered.
The inquiry represented far more than just one person's skepticism. For days a petition calling for outdoor lunches at Seattle Public Schools had been circulating online. Supporters stressed that eating outside, where there's generally less transmission of the virus, is a common-sense way to reduce infections in schools. Unlike last year, nearly all Seattle public school students will return to classrooms this September for five full days per week. And while daily case counts have plateaued or even begun to decline in King County, Delta is more contagious than the variants spreading last spring. “Until a vaccine is available for children under 12, universal masking and limited indoor exposure are the best methods we have to protect our children and accomplish our goal of safe, in-person learning,” the petition says. “Outdoor lunches are a feasible, impactful safety strategy that we should be prioritizing for ALL students regardless of the school they attend.”
At the virtual town hall, Jones tossed it to assistant deputy superintendent Carri Campbell for a response to concerns that aligned with the district’s health and safety guidelines for meals. In short, indoor dining could be made safer with more distancing, better ventilation, and diligent masking and hand-washing. Still, Campbell acknowledged that schools would consider using additional spaces for lunch, including “some flow out into outdoor spaces if we can’t maximize to the fullest extent inside the building.”
As of Friday, 30 of the district’s 104 schools had ordered tents measuring 20 feet by 30 feet, and another 36 tents had been purchased, according to SPS media relations specialist Tim Robinson. The tents will help increase social distancing but aren’t the only outdoor or alternative option, Robinson wrote via email. “Each school is unique in its layout and space accommodations, and each principal and their team is doing everything they can to creatively and effectively use their unique space to best provide social distancing that hews to public health guidance.”
Some principals are boxed in, though. “Not all schools have a safe, appropriate space to hold outdoor lunches,” SPS notes on its website.
That won’t satisfy the petition’s backers, who criticize the district’s school-by-school approach to the logistics of lunching safely. “Having this important safety strategy handled at a school level risks creating significant health and education equity gaps as less-resourced schools may risk more frequent outbreaks and transmission due to a lack of space, resources (such as volunteer time and PTA funding), and advocacy tools to make fully outdoor lunches possible.”
Neighboring districts are taking a similar tack. In Bellevue, some schools will hold lunches outside, weather-permitting, but it will still be a school-by-school decision. Lake Washington School District will also leave the decision-making up to each of its 56 schools.
Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health—Seattle and King County, said during a press briefing last week that outdoor dining “is preferable whenever possible." When alfresco isn't an option, schools should strive to create six feet of distance between students indoors, up from the three feet of distancing required in classrooms. Ventilation is critical—between four and six air exchanges (jargon but...pretty much how it sounds) every hour helps mitigate Covid transmission, Duchin said.
SPS's policy mirrors that guideline, with protected health care spaces and music rooms each receiving as many as 10 air exchanges per hour. All schools will also aim to enforce six feet of social distancing in common areas.
At lunch, staff will stagger seating or tell kids to face the same direction to avoid bare-cheeked crosstalk. Students will sit in assigned groups (giving new meaning to "you can't sit with us"). They'll be encouraged to speak only when they're masked up between bites or sips.
To some ears, those rules might read a tad draconian. But they're not written in Sharpie. In the town hall, Campbell concluded by saying that the district would keep tracking Covid's spread and “continually adjust our approach and our lunch plans as necessary.”
Whatever tweaks are in store, administrators will have to react quickly or risk logistical matters, like lunch locations, becoming moot: If cases cluster at schools, Duchin says that "we need to be prepared to pivot back to remote learning."