Some DMV parents concerned about kids eating in school cafeterias ask districts for outdoor plan

Some parents in the D.C region are asking their school districts, what’s the plan for breakfast and lunch whenever kids gather inside of school buildings to eat without wearing a mask?

In Montgomery County, hundreds of parents have signed a petition to have students eat lunch outside, in order to avoid large, unmasked gatherings in cafeterias, as concerns surrounding the Delta variant continue to grow. The petition urges Montgomery County Public Schools to come up with a plan that makes outdoor meals the default, using indoor spaces only when necessary.

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"As parents, we are trying to figure out, how can we support our school leadership and also put pressure on the district to really give more systemic support?," said MCPS parent, Joanna Snyder.

This fall, MCPS like many other DMV school districts, will require everyone to wear face coverings in their buildings, regardless of vaccination status, to mitigate the spread of the virus.

But many parents and advocates are concerned that health safety during lunch and breakfast time isn’t included in MCPS’s reopening plan released Friday. 

Some parents tell FOX 5’s Ayesha Khan, large groups of children gather in the cafeterias, congregating at tables, and have to take off their masks to eat, raising concerns that their children could become sick.

In the plans, MCPS stated it encourages "the use of outdoor spaces for unmasked educational and societal experiences for students," but that students "will be able to eat breakfast and lunch in cafeterias and other available eating areas."

"Make it public," said Snyder.

"What are the support guidelines so that we can also support through the community making that happen? This is going to take a village both within each school and across the district. It’s doable and it’s being done but it’s not obvious to the average kind of teacher because we are in a very indoor kind of driven culture with our schools."

MCPS spokesperson, Gboyinde Onijala explained in an email to Khan that, "students will not be limited to the cafeteria only. From our reopening guide: Students will be able to eat breakfast and lunch in cafeterias and other designated areas, including outdoor spaces when feasible. Schools are receiving support in considering ways to maximize outdoor spaces."

"If you are uncomfortable with your child sitting comfortably eating lunch with another child inside the building then there are options," said MCPS parent, Renee Zapadka. "If the schools can make it work great, if it’s not an option, then the kids need to be back in school because eating lunch for the 30 minute period or however long it is should not be a deal-breaker for us to be getting back into school."

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In another response to the petition, MCPS parent, Andrew Kloster wrote in to Khan saying:

"I spoke with the school and lunches are already spaced out, so the petition (which at the moment has a small handful of signatures which any petition would get) is a bit pointless.

If the ask is to mandate outside lunch, that would be terrible for kids. I am hoping for maskless lunches and parents who are responsible enough to keep their kids at home if they have symptoms of any illness."

Khan also checked with other surrounding school districts.

Meghan Gebreselassie with Prince George’s County Public Schools said in a statement:

"Breakfast and lunch will be served in the cafeteria or in designated areas determined by school administration.

Elementary schools participating in Maryland Meals for Achievement Classroom Breakfast Program will have breakfast delivered to the classroom.

When weather permits and space is evaluated for safety, meals may be taken outside. Principals will assess their building and develop procedures based on space availability where possible. 

Several schools held lunch outdoors this spring during hybrid learning. But this is determined by each school's administration."

Frank Bellavia with Arlington Public Schools said that "schools will continue to provide distancing during meals as possible, and to seek alternative spaces for lunch, including the use of indoor and outside space where possible."

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Fairfax County Public Schools spokesperson, Jennifer Sellers said in a statement:

"FCPS is committed to doing all we can to provide a safe environment for everyone. 

We will all wear masks while in FCPS buildings. Students can remove their masks when actively eating or drinking. If eating indoors, individuals are required to put their masks back on when not actually eating or drinking. 

Students can also remove their masks when outside. Schools will use outdoor eating to increase opportunities for physical distancing as permitted by space, weather, and supervision."

According to D.C Public Schools spokesperson, Enrique Gutierrez, Mayor Muriel Bowser is expected to provide a situational update Wednesday "where she will address these points, but I will refer you what we have already shared with families regarding student meals. Pre-K and Kindergarten students will eat in the classroom and all other grades will eat in the cafeteria. Social distancing should be followed while eating and drinking, to the extent feasible."