Mairin Barney’s daughter spent much of her lunchtime on the first day of school chattering excitedly about her return to Baltimore International Academy.
But unlike most of her fellow second-graders, she was dining in her mom’s car.
Barney said she decided to pull her daughter from lunchtime because sending her to the school cafeteria, where she’d sit among dozens of other unmasked, unvaccinated students, felt far too risky given the spread of COVID-19.
”The delta variant is really contagious. And so I still feel a lot like I’m crossing my fingers and praying,” she said.
As students return to classrooms, lunchtime has become a point of particular concern for some Baltimore-area parents. Experts say it could be the most perilous part of the school day, particularly for unvaccinated youth who need to remove their masks to eat. And for young children who haven’t been in school for more than a year and may struggle to contain their excitement, enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing can be especially difficult.
“I asked my kids about how far everybody was seated, and they were not impressed,” said Kim Birnbaum, a Howard County mother of two fifth graders. “Like one to two feet maybe at the cafeteria tables.”
In the Baltimore area, lunchtime plans vary between districts. In Carroll County, for instance, lunches are poised to return to a pre-pandemic norm in cafeterias, a spokesperson said last week. In Baltimore City, students are supposed to be kept in small pods at lunchtime to minimize spread of the virus, and outdoor dining is encouraged. And in Howard County, all schools are to have outdoor dining areas — as staffing and weather permits — school officials said last month.
“Outdoor dining combined with a little bit of social distancing is by far the best option,” said Christopher Thompson, a microbiology and immunology professor at Loyola University Maryland. If dining outdoors isn’t an option, schools should consider opening windows and running fans in indoor spaces to increase air flow, Thompson said.
Lunchrooms are often louder environments, meaning any sick students could be spreading more virus particles, Thompson said. Contact tracing also can be more difficult if social distancing isn’t consistently enforced.
“Picturing a class of kindergarteners and saying ‘Now you all stay exactly three feet apart from one another’: They have no idea what that means and they’re going to forget in two minutes,” Thompson said.
Barney is among a group of parents urging Baltimore City schools to offer outdoor lunchtime in hopes of reducing the transmission of COVID-19 between students.
Hers is the first name listed on a online petition calling for the school system to “immediately offer supplemental funding to all schools in the district for the purchase of tents/canopies, picnic tables, and other necessities for outdoor eating.”
“The lack of a coordinated effort by the District means that schools that serve the poorest residents of Baltimore City may not be able to raise additional resources,” the petition reads, “which will result in inequitable distribution of COVID-19 outbreaks, putting the most vulnerable children of Baltimore City at even greater risk.”
City schools spokeswoman Gwendolyn Chambers said the system is “working with schools to determine what additional resources, if any, a school may need to successfully implement outdoor lunch.”
“School spaces and lunch schedules are different at every school, so lunch plans must be tailored for individual schools,” Chambers wrote in an email. “Many schools are already successfully implementing creative solutions for outdoor lunch, such as utilizing yoga mats and courtyard spaces for mealtimes.”
Parents have contrasted the city’s plan to that of the Howard County Public School System, which announced Aug. 20 that all schools would have outdoor dining areas for student use “as weather and staffing permits.” The system planned to purchase tables, chairs and tents, plus plexiglass shields meant to separate children sitting at indoor cafeteria tables. The tents will be for elementary schools, and so far, contractors have installed tents at nine schools in the county, said Howard County schools spokesman Brian Bassett.
Birnbaum said her children ate outdoors Monday. But when one of them tried to bring a friend, school staff intervened, saying that the child’s guardian hadn’t filled out the requisite permission form.
The fact that students’ guardians needed to opt-in to outdoor dining felt strange, Birnbaum said, particularly given that families aren’t required to opt-in to recess outside, or outdoor class time, she said. On Monday, only five other fifth graders ate outside alongside her twins.
“Of all of the links that we have to keep our kids safe, lunch is probably the most vulnerable,” she said. “So, it’s not the place you want to be lax.”
In a statement, Bassett confirmed the system is asking for parental permission for outdoor dining among younger students, although not necessarily at the high school level.
“It’s such a new process and opportunity for our younger students that we felt it was important for parents/guardians to be involved in the decision due to several factors including potential outdoor allergies, limited space at many schools for outdoor eating, and other unknowns that only the parent/guardian could provide,” Basset wrote in an email.
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Laura Newberger, a Howard County mom of two students under 12 years old, said her sixth grader ate outdoors with a friend Monday, but the pair were the only children who did so during their lunch period, Newberger said. On Tuesday, though, staffers led all of the children outside for lunch, she said.
“I think [eating lunch outdoors] really needs to be the default until we can get vaccinations for our kids,” Newberger said.
Joanna Snyder, a Montgomery County mom who studies outdoor learning as part of her work as a science curriculum specialist at the University of California Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, said schools may resist outdoor dining for any number of reasons, from the threat of bee stings and traffic accidents to staffing issues.
“It’s just about thinking through a whole different way of doing something, when also bandwidths are very limited because our principals have so much burden on their shoulders,” said Snyder, who was behind a Montgomery County petition for outdoor dining in schools.
Baltimore City parent Daniela Rodriguez said she plans to remove her children from school at lunchtime at least until the district begins randomized pool testing for COVID-19 during the third week of school. The district has said the delay allows for parents to sign necessary permission forms for the surveillance testing.
Overall, Rodriguez feels the district needs to do more to adjust to the changes wrought by the delta variant.
“It just feels a little bit out of touch with the current epidemiological reality,” Rodriguez said.