With two weeks before the first day of school, hundreds of parents and students across Montgomery County are pushing the school district to have students eat lunch outdoors to avoid large, unmasked gatherings in cafeterias during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montgomery County Public Schools this fall will require everyone to wear face coverings in its buildings, regardless of vaccination status, to mitigate the spread of the virus.
But parents and advocates have flagged what they feel is a loophole: lunchtime. During lunch, large groups of children gather in schools’ cafeterias, congregating at tables, indoors, and they must take their masks off to eat.
In its reopening plan, released Friday, MCPS said 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.”
Since Friday afternoon, more than 1,400 people have signed an online petition urging MCPS to develop a plan that makes outdoor meals the default, using indoor spaces only when absolutely necessary.
“I feel like, for me, the highest risk moment for my first-grader is gonna be, if she’s in the cafeteria with multiple classes, and we just don’t know yet enough about the Delta variant to know if the current plan to just have sort of classes contained in different parts of the cafeteria is enough,” said Joanna Snyder, a local parent, advocate and outdoor education expert.
A school district spokeswoman acknowledged Bethesda Beat’s request for comment on Monday, but had not provided answers to questions as of 8 p.m.
County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles was not available for comment on Monday.
In an email to Bethesda Beat, Deputy Health Officer James Bridgers wrote that “in the absence of” state guidance, the county recommends following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for safe meal times in schools.
The guidance includes physical distancing measures, like creating one-way walkways and ensuring students sit 6 feet apart. It also recommends frequent hand washing and enhancing ventilation systems in meal areas.
In the online petition that had signatures taking up nearly 50 pages as of Monday afternoon, signees wrote that if MCPS did not create a uniform policy for the district that prioritizes outdoor meals, schools will be forced to rely on parent-teacher association funding — like for extra supervision and outdoor seating — to support the effort. Doing so would stoke inequity because not every school has a robust PTA, or one at all, some signees wrote.
Snyder said, though, that if some schools could mobilize their PTAs to help organize outdoor lunches, it frees up resources for other schools that can’t.
“The district is very concerned about equity with this, so anytime a PTA can kind of help bolster up their school, that’s one less school the district has to prioritize,” Snyder said. “That’s why I encourage folks to not let perfect be the enemy of good. Let’s get something going, then we can build towards a more sustainable path hopefully down the road.”
One counterpoint to the idea Snyder said she’s heard is from school leaders who have limited outdoor space. But through her work in past years to maximize outdoor learning opportunities, Snyder said she’s realized that there are many spaces, like blacktops or stairwells, that are often overlooked, but could be used.
The goal, she said, is not to have outdoor lunches be the only option. Rather, it’s to ensure it is the “Plan A” for when the weather is nice, and indoor options as “Plan B,” for when it’s rainy or cold.
“I would say, think about recess for elementary school kids. The Plan A for recess is to get the kids outside, but we have a less desirable Plan B in the works,” she explained. “It’s the same thing we’re going for for the outdoor lunch idea.”
Some parents said they fear that all other mitigation measures in place throughout the day will be meaningless if a better plan for lunchtime is not implemented.
Ultimately, a safe lunch routine means fewer infections and fewer students and teachers needing to quarantine after a possible exposure, they emphasized.
For some students, it’s also an opportunity to take a mid-day mental health break.
“Being outdoors can increase mindfulness and I think during COVID, that’s important because students can be feeling more stressed from schoolwork, home situations, or the potential for catching the virus,” Richard Montgomery High School sophomore Ami Mundra wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Monday. “A lot of fun opportunities for students have had to be rethought or removed due to the virus, and I think outdoor lunch would be a fun way to take away dullness from the school day.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org