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Doctors say schools should adjust cafeteria eating to protect kids from COVID-19

Posted at 5:26 PM, Aug 20, 2020

Scientists and doctors are watching closely as some children head back to school with in-person learning. Many are hoping extra precautions will keep students safe. But there are big questions surrounding the safety of lunchtime.

"If you’re doing all the right things, masking kids, keeping them distanced and washing hands, you are going to decrease your chance of transmission. But if they take masks off and they're indoors in close proximity, you’ve sort of derailed your entire plan because lunchtime is the most high-risk time to transmit COVID-19 or any illness," says Dr. Tanya Altmann, a pediatrician with the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Altmann says it's important during lunchtime, that children are at least six feet apart and not facing each other.

"I would recommend that in any area around the country where you can eat lunch outdoors, to eat lunch outdoors because that is safer," says Dr. Altmann.

Dr. Jay Varkey, the hospital epidemiologist at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, agrees that school administrators should have students eat outside, when weather permits.

"You can’t wear a mask and eat a lunch. Depending on the age of the children, I don’t think a lot of school-age children are maybe the most diligent in terms of washing their hands before and after a meal. So, I do think it’s a potentially high-risk area," says Dr. Varkey.

Dr. Varkey adds, the same goes with school employees who may be heading to a teacher's lounge for lunch or a cup of coffee. Those school spaces need to be recreated to allow for more social distancing.

"First and foremost, it goes back to what metrics you need to open up schools. As much as I am a believer in in-person learning and the benefits of it, the reality is, in order to open safely you have to have control of COVID-19 transmission in the community," says Dr. Varkey.

As public health officials work to battle COVID-19 in their communities, Dr. Altmann recommends schools reimagine spaces on their campuses.

Dr. Altmann says, “You could maybe repurpose your library as a teacher break room. You could use the auditorium as a lunch space or even the gym since we’re not going to be having contact sports."

Dr. Altmann says children eating lunch inside their classrooms is also okay, as long as no desks are facing each other. A big adjustment for kids as some head back to school for in-person learning, with many changes to their daily routines.