A school cafeteria can be a germy place, a crowded petri dish where bacteria — or a virus — could spread.
Each day, hundreds of students — who may or may not have washed their hands — touch trays, counters, plates, utensils and sometimes one another before grabbing food, sitting at a communal table and devouring their midday meals amid a cacophony of chatter.
This fall, with many Utah students heading back to class — and the spread of the coronavirus still at the forefront — expect traditional lunchroom culture to change. Things will be cleaner, more orderly and, just like grocery stores and restaurants, socially distant.
The Utah State Board of Education’s reopening plan requires all schools to follow certain steps.
Serving stations must have marked spaces and designated “flow paths” to ensure students stay 6 feet apart while in line.
Schools must remove self-serve salad bars and buffets and implement hand-washing procedures — either soap and water or sanitizers — before and after meal service.
Lunchroom staffers also will “increase cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch areas.”
While not mandated, schools also are encouraged to:
• Serve prepackaged items or boxed meals.
• Stagger — and shorten — lunch hours to reduce the number of students in the cafeteria at one time.
• Allow kids to eat outside as long as the weather permits; or in their classrooms or other areas such as hallways and gyms.
• Track seating and attendance for contract tracing.
• Use disposable plates and utensils when possible.
• Encourage personal water bottles or paper cups, rather than drinking fountain use.
Most districts along the Wasatch Front are implementing at least some of the recommendations, but this is all new and students and parents can expect conditions to evolve.
“We’ll learn a lot during the first couple weeks of school,” said Sandra Riesgraf, director of communications for the Jordan School District, “about what is working best and what might work better.”
The big challenge will be to keep children at a safe distance while they eat, said Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District. Lunch will be one of the few times during the school day when they will be allowed to remove their face coverings, which is the only mandate Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Department of Health have given schools.
“Their broader social network,” Horsley said, “is going to diminish significantly.”
Generally, those high school students who, in years past, were allowed to go off-campus for lunch, can continue to do so — helping with social distancing.
It’s up to school districts to determine what foods to serve students. It can be a juggling act as they try to select items that require minimal contact while still meeting nutrition guidelines required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In the Murray School District, for example, campuses will forgo individual pizza slices and burritos in favor of prewrapped sandwiches and other grab-and-go items.
The Granite District will have preheated and prepackaged entrees so students can peel back the plastic covering at the table.
And kids in the Canyons School District can choose from different items, said Sebasthian Varas, director of nutrition services.
“Students will have the option to have a grab-and-go box or a hot meal served on their tray,” he said. “They also can decide if they are going to eat in the cafeteria or they can eat in the classroom or in a different location.”
Until the district can get devices to scan identification cards, students will not be typing in their ID numbers. Staffers will take their names verbally.
All of this, of course, is to create a safer environment, Varas said. “We can tell parents that if they choose to go with school meal options, that, as always, we’ll follow the health department requirements, plus the USDA regulations for a safe meal for the students.”
All these changes, said Kimberly Loveland, the state’s K-12 child nutrition programs coordinator, will be done with limited staff. “The state overall has seen a shortage of food service staff. This has been going on for the past few years.”
But the small crews still “make it work,” she said, noting how most Utah schools were able to quickly start serving sack lunches and boxed family meals when schools shut down in March. “They turned on a dime, to make sure students were fed.”
Since then, Loveland said, the school lunch program has had time to host town halls, conduct parent surveys and discuss scenarios to ensure that children are fed — and safe — when they come back to school.
“They’ve already been navigating the situation,” she said, “and know what’s working and what’s doable.”
Of course, with start dates still a few weeks away, unknowns remain, such as: How many students will opt for a sack lunch from home? How many — because of the shaky economy — will qualify for free or reduced school lunch? And how many students will be online-only and won’t need school lunch at all?
Murray School District expects 25% of its students to attend classes online when school starts later this month. That will naturally reduce the number of kids in classrooms, hallways and the lunchroom, said spokesman Doug Perry.
Still, the district is working on a way to provide those online-only students meals to go if they need them.
Salt Lake City School District is the outlier. All students in Utah’s capital will attend school remotely beginning Sept. 8 through at least the end of October. With just virtual classes, students won’t be going back to lunchrooms anytime soon, said district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin.
These schools still will provide breakfast and lunch, maintaining the grab-and-go style meals that were available for pickup during through the spring and summer. Last year, around 60% of students got free or reduced lunch in the city, a number that might rise because of the unemployment rate and other coronavirus economic factors.
Salt Lake City remains in the state’s ”orange” risk phase, while all other counties are in yellow or green. To reopen, COVID-19 case counts would need to drop to fewer than 10 per 100,000 people or 5% of positive test rate.
“It was important for us to take that into account and to make sure that we are using science and public health metrics as we make the decision on how to reopen schools,” Chatwin said. “The goal is to bring our students back into the classrooms as soon as we can. Everybody wants that. We just need to make sure we do it safely and in such a way that when we open, we can stay open.”